WASHINGTON — At first, he vowed to “take the mantle” for closing part of the federal government. Then he blamed Democrats, saying they “now own the shutdown.” By Friday, President Trump was back to owning it again. “I’m very proud of doing what I’m doing,” he declared.
Two weeks into the showdown over a border wall, Mr. Trump is now crafting his own narrative of the confrontation that has come to consume his presidency. Rather than a failure of negotiation, the shutdown has become a test of political virility, one in which he insists he is receiving surreptitious support from unlikely quarters.
Not only are
- national security hawks cheering him on to defend a porous southern border, but so too are
- former presidents who he says have secretly confessed to him that they should have done what he is doing. Not only do
- federal employees accept being furloughed or forced to work without wages,
- they have assured him that they would give up paychecks so that he can stand strong.
Never mind how implausible such assertions might seem. The details do not matter to Mr. Trump as much as dominating the debate. After an oddly quiescent holiday season in which he complained via Twitter about being left at home alone — “poor me” — he has taken the public stage this week clearly intent on framing the conflict on his own terms.
People close to the president described him as emboldened since members of Congress returned to Washington after the break, giving him not only a clear target to swing at but helping him focus on a fight that he is convinced is a political winner. One aide said Mr. Trump believes he has gained the upper hand in the public battle.
Although surveys at first showed more Americans blaming him for the shutdown than Democrats, later polling showed the fault more evenly split. And the voters he cares most about, his core conservative supporters, are more enthusiastic than the public at large. He has told people that “my people” love the fight, and that he believes he is winning.
In the past three days, Mr. Trump has appeared in public three times to get his version of the story out while Democrats celebrated their takeover of the House. At a lengthy cabinet meeting on Wednesday, an appearance with border patrol union leaders on Thursday and a news conference with Republican congressional leaders in the Rose Garden on Friday, he engaged in quintessentially Trumpian stream of conscious discussions that ranged widely and unpredictably.
At one point, he argued that the Soviet Union was right to invade Afghanistan in 1979 to stop terrorists, a revisionist version that provoked a strong reaction in Kabul and earned a sharp rebuke from the often supportive editorial page of The Wall Street Journal, which said, “We cannot recall a more absurd misstatement of history by an American President.”
Mr. Trump’s version of events differed even from the other people in the room at Friday’s meeting at the White House. When Democratic congressional leaders emerged after two hours, they described a “contentious” session with no meaningful progress as the president threatened to keep the government closed for “months or even years.” When Mr. Trump emerged shortly afterward, he described a “very, very productive meeting” and predicted the standoff could be “fixed very quickly.”
Two people briefed on the meeting said that White House officials viewed the conversation as the first civil discussion that had taken place between the two sides, and it left some of Mr. Trump’s aides hopeful. Indeed, Mr. Trump made a point of publicly saying nothing but relatively positive things about the Democrats on Friday.
Optimistic that a deal really is within reach, the president said he would have Vice President Mike Pence; Kirstjen Nielsen, the homeland security secretary; and Jared Kushner, his son-in-law and senior adviser, meet with Democrats over the weekend.
But there were questions about his own side of the aisle. Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the majority leader, unlike other congressional Republican leaders, was not present for the Rose Garden news conference. “He’s running the Senate,” Mr. Trump explained, even though the Senate had adjourned hours earlier and Mr. McConnell’s spokesman said the senator did not know about the news conference.
The president nonetheless was feeling energized by support he said he had received for the fight — including the very federal employees who are not being paid as a result of the partial shutdown.
By all public accounts, Mr. Trump had not spoken with his living predecessors since his inauguration until former President George Bush died last month. Mr. Trump called Mr. Bush’s son, former President George W. Bush, to offer condolences, but the subject of the wall did not come up, according to Mr. Bush’s office. A few days later, at the elder Mr. Bush’s funeral, Mr. Trump encountered his predecessors for the first time since taking office, but he sat quietly without talking with them during the service.
The younger Mr. Bush built miles of wall and fencing along the Mexico line while he was president, but said it could not cover the entire border and insisted that enforcement should be coupled with an overhaul of immigration law to permit many people in the country illegally to stay. Former President Barack Obama has repeatedly criticized Mr. Trump’s proposed wall, and former President Jimmy Carter has said technological improvements would be more effective at protecting the border.
The White House did not say afterward which presidents Mr. Trump was referring to, but a senior administration official said he was probably referring to public comments his predecessors have made about the need for border security, not necessarily for a wall specifically.
As he careened this week from subject to subject and assertion to assertion, an energized Mr. Trump seemed to be enjoying himself. He went on for more than an hour and a half on Wednesday and another hour on Friday.
“Should we keep this going or not, folks?” he asked reporters at one point before noticing that it was a cold January day in the Rose Garden.
“Should we keep this going a little bit longer?” he asked again. “Let me know when you get tired.”
One thing Mr. Trump was not was tired.
An argument last February between the White House chief of staff, John F. Kelly, and Corey Lewandowski, an informal adviser to President Trump, turned into a physical altercation that required Secret Service intervention just outside the Oval Office, according to a half-dozen people familiar with the events.
The episode, details of which have not been previously reported, is the latest illustration of the often chaotic atmosphere Mr. Trump is willing to tolerate in the White House as well as a reflection of the degree to which Mr. Kelly’s temper can be provoked.
The near brawl — during which Mr. Kelly grabbed Mr. Lewandowski by the collar and tried to have him ejected from the West Wing — came at a time when the chief of staff was facing uncertainty about how long Mr. Trump would keep him in his job. A guessing game over his departure has colored his tenure ever since.
Mr. Kelly, a retired four-star Marine Corps general, was widely hailed as the lone grown-up who could corral a staff full of bombastic and competing personalities when he was appointed in summer 2017. But Mr. Kelly has shown little inclination to curb his own instinct for confrontation, from scuffling with a Chinese official during a visit to Beijing last year to last week’s profanity-laced shouting match with John R. Bolton, the national security adviser, after a meeting with the president.
.. Anthony Scaramucci, who has written a book about being Mr. Trump’s communications director for 11 days until Mr. Kelly fired him after the release of a recording of his own profanity-laced call with a reporter, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday that Mr. Kelly had “hurt the morale inside the place.”
“And he’s hurt the president. And he has hissy fits,” Mr. Scaramucci said, adding that “he’s demonstrating his personality now the way he really is.”.. Mr. Kelly criticized Mr. Lewandowski to Mr. Trump for making so much money off the president in the form of his contract with the super PAC supporting the president’s re-election. Mr. Kelly also expressed his anger that Mr. Lewandowski had been criticizing him on television for his handling of the security clearance controversy related to Mr. Porter... The two then began arguing, with Mr. Lewandowski speaking loudly. Mr. Kelly grabbed Mr. Lewandowski by his collar, trying to push him against a wall, according to a person with direct knowledge of the episode.
Mr. Lewandowski did not get physical in response, according to multiple people familiar with the episode. But Secret Service agents were called in.
.. Mr. Kelly, who is called “the general” or “the chief” by his allies inside the West Wing, is widely seen as a diminished presence among the president’s advisers. Though Mr. Kelly has repeatedly said he expresses his honest opinions to Mr. Trump, he has shown little inclination or ability to curb some of the president’s impulses.
.. The president, for his part, has shown a certain reverence for men willing to engage in physical scuffles. Last fall, when Mr. Kelly was newly in his role, his willingness to engage angrily in meetings with Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, who at the time was the national security adviser, thrilled Mr. Trump. The president, who did not like General McMaster, gleefully told people about the skirmishes between the two men for weeks, saying it showed how tough Mr. Kelly was, a person familiar with the discussions said.
.. And The Wall Street Journal recently reported that Mr. Kelly got into a physical altercation with a Chinese official trying to gain access the so-called nuclear football
.. “I think Trump has decided it’s really a bad marriage,” said Chris Whipple, author of “The Gatekeepers,” a history of White House chiefs of staff, “that he has decided to muddle through.”
Chad Ludington, a Yale classmate of Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh’s who said he often drank with him, issued a statement on Sunday saying the Supreme Court nominee was not truthful about his drinking in his testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee last week.
I knew Brett at Yale because I was a classmate and a varsity basketball player and Brett enjoyed socializing with athletes. Indeed, athletes formed the core of Brett’s social circle.
In recent days I have become deeply troubled by what has been a blatant mischaracterization by Brett himself of his drinking at Yale. When I watched Brett and his wife being interviewed on Fox News on Monday, and when I watched Brett deliver his testimony under oath to the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday, I cringed. For the fact is, at Yale, and I can speak to no other times, Brett was a frequent drinker, and a heavy drinker. I know, because, especially in our first two years of college, I often drank with him. On many occasions I heard Brett slur his words and saw him staggering from alcohol consumption, not all of which was beer. When Brett got drunk, he was often belligerent and aggressive. On one of the last occasions I purposely socialized with Brett, I witnessed him respond to a semi-hostile remark, not by defusing the situation, but by throwing his beer in the man’s face and starting a fight that ended with one of our mutual friends in jail.
.. I have direct and repeated knowledge about his drinking and his disposition while drunk. And I do believe that Brett’s actions as a 53-year-old federal judge matter. If he lied about his past actions on national television, and more especially while speaking under oath in front of the United States Senate, I believe those lies should have consequences.
.. the ability to speak the truth, even when it does not reflect well upon oneself, is a paramount quality we seek in our nation’s most powerful judges.
I can unequivocally say that in denying the possibility that he ever blacked out from drinking, and in downplaying the degree and frequency of his drinking, Brett has not told the truth.
If there was any doubt that his presidency is an unending campaign
.. Addressing the Conservative Political Action Conference, the president read “The Snake,” a parable about a tenderhearted woman who takes in an ailing snake and gives it milk, honey and a silk blanket, only to be killed by the revived creature’s poisonous bite.
Trump explained the metaphor: “You have to think of this in terms of immigration.”
.. On the campaign trail in 2016, Trump frequently told the tale of the snake. The crowds at his rallies loved it. Other Americans were appalled and found it racist.
.. A day earlier, Vice President Pence stood on the same stage at CPAC and sounded a call for unity.
.. His boss had a different idea, however.
- Trump mocked Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), a war hero and Republican elder statesman with a terminal form of brain cancer, for his health-care vote.
- He vowed to “fight” a current Democratic foe, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.). And he
- revived his row with a previous one, former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, by encouraging chants of “lock her up” and sounding off about her alleged “atrocities.”
.. He is at his most comfortable on the campaign trail, as a political brawler feeding off the passions of his fans and speaking off the cuff.
.. “You don’t mind if I go off script a little bit?” Trump said during his Friday speech, referring to the teleprompters loaded with words his aides wanted him to read. “Because it’s sort of boring
.. “I try like hell to hide that bald spot, folks,” Trump said. “I work hard at it. Doesn’t look bad. Hey, we’re hanging in. We’re hanging in.”
.. he derides as “chain migration,” with “a merit system.” Never mind that this week, a lawyer representing Trump’s Slovenian-born wife, Melania, and her family told The Washington Post that the first lady’s parents, Viktor and Amalija Knavs