‘Prisoner of his own impulse’: Inside Trump’s cave to end shutdown without wall

His poll numbers were plummeting. His FBI director was decrying the dysfunction. The nation’s air travel was in chaos. Federal workers were lining up at food banks. Economic growth was at risk of flatlining, and even some Republican senators were in open revolt.

So on Friday, the 35th day of a government shutdown that he said he was proud to instigate, President Trump finally folded. After vowing for weeks that he would keep the government closed unless he secured billions in funding for his promised border wall, Trump agreed to reopen it.

He got $0 instead.

Trump’s capitulation to Democrats marked a humiliating low point in a polarizing presidency and sparked an immediate backlash among some conservative allies, who cast him as a wimp.

Elected as a self-proclaimed master dealmaker and business wizard who would bend Washington to his will and stand firm on his campaign promises — chief among them the wall — Trump risks being exposed as ineffective.

“He was the prisoner of his own impulse and it turned into a catastrophe for him,” said David Axelrod, who was a White House adviser to President Barack Obama. “The House of Representatives has power and authority — and now a speaker who knows how to use it — so that has to become part of his calculation or he’ll get embarrassed again.”

.. This account of Trump’s stymied pursuit of border wall funding is based on interviews with more than a dozen senior administration officials, Trump confidants and others briefed on internal discussions, many of whom requested anonymity to speak candidly.

Trump repeatedly predicted to advisers that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) would cave and surmised that she had a problem with the more liberal members of her caucus. But she held firm, and her members stayed united.

“Why are they always so loyal?” Trump asked in one staff meeting, complaining that Democrats so often stick together while Republicans sometimes break apart, according to attendees.

As for their negotiations, Trump and Pelosi had not spoken since their Jan. 9 session in which the president stormed out of the White House Situation Room. In a private meeting with some columnists earlier this week, Pelosi was asked why she thought Trump had not created a more potent nickname for her than “Nancy.” She replied, according to a senior Democratic aide, “Some people think that’s because he understands the power of the speaker.”

Trump and his advisers misunderstood the will of Democrats to oppose wall funding. Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, emerged as the most powerful White House adviser during the shutdown and told colleagues that Trump’s plan for $5.7 billion in wall funding would get Democratic votes in the Senate on Thursday, astonishing Capitol Hill leaders and other White House aides.

Kushner, who Trump jokingly says is to the “left,” pitched a broader immigration deal and had faith that he could negotiate a grand bargain in the coming weeks, according to people familiar with his discussions. He pitched a big deal to Latino groups this week and also with members of the Koch network, the people said.

Trump, who fretted about the shutdown’s impact on the economy and his personal popularity, cast about for blame and pointed fingers at his staff — including Kushner — for failing to resolve the impasse, according to aides.

At a meeting Wednesday with conservative groups, the president accused former House speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) of having “screwed him” by not securing border wall money when Republicans had the majority, according to one attendee, Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies. He said Ryan should have gotten him money before he left but he had no juice and had “gone fishing,” according to two attendees.

Ryan had warned the president against a shutdown and told him it would be politically disastrous, according to a person familiar with their conversations.

All the while, Trump vowed he would never capitulate to Democrats. At the Wednesday meeting, “he said there would be no caving,” Krikorian said. “Everybody who spoke up applauded him for not caving, but warned him that any further movement toward the Democrats’ direction would be a problem.”

White House aides had been monitoring Transportation Security Administration data on airport security delays and staffing levels several times a day. Officials said Thursday that the situation was worsening and would probably force the end of the shutdown.

But events at the Capitol on Thursday are largely what triggered Trump to conclude that he had run out of time and that he had to reopen the government, his aides said.

Trump lost control of his party as fissures emerged among exasperated Republican senators. Six of them voted Thursday for a Democratic spending bill, and others privately voiced frustration with Vice President Pence and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) during a closed-door, contentious luncheon.

“Everyone who saw the floor action realized we were basically at the same place where we began and we needed a different solution,” a White House official said of Thursday’s votes.

McConnell called Trump on Thursday to say that the shutdown could not hold because some of his members were in revolt. The president did not commit to ending it in that call, but he phoned McConnell back that evening to say he had concluded the shutdown had to end, according to a person with knowledge of the conversations.

Under attack from some Republican colleagues, McConnell told senators on Friday that Trump had come up with the idea for a three-week deal — and that the president would be announcing it.

When Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.) visited the White House on Thursday, he said Trump was in a “pragmatic” mood, mentioning the failed Senate votes and saying he wanted to make a deal.

Pence and Kushner presented the president with several options that would reopen the government, according to a White House official. They included using his executive authority to declare a national emergency and redirect other public funds for the wall, an option Trump said Friday he was holding in reserve. Trump also briefly considered a commission that would study a wall, according to a senior administration official.

On Thursday night, the president grew annoyed at Mick Mulvaney when the acting White House chief of staff talked with him about policy prescriptions for the next three weeks and what an eventual deal might look like, according to one person familiar with the conversation.

Administration officials began immediately on this next phase; Mulvaney and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen met privately with a handful of Republican senators at Camp David on Friday evening to start discussing what a border security agreement might look like, according to multiple people familiar with the gathering.

Ultimately, aides said, Trump was willing to table debate over wall funding because he is convinced he can win support from some Democratic lawmakers over the next three weeks.

Friday’s agreement allows for a conference committee made up of rank-and-file members from each party to negotiate border security funding, which White House aides said they believe will enable more flexibility than existed during Trump’s stalemate with Pelosi.

.. A senior White House official said the administration’s negotiating team has received “dozens of signals from Democrats that they are willing to give the president wall money,” but declined to name any such lawmakers.

The administration may have been referring to a letter written by freshman Rep. Elaine Luria (D-Va.) and signed by more than 30 House Democrats, which merely called for a vote on Trump’s border security proposal once the government reopens.

But “that vote would obviously fail in the House,” one senior Democratic aide pointed out. “This is just pathetic spin.”
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said, “The poll numbers tell a very stark story, but it’s only part of the more enduring longer-term effect on the president’s credibility. He essentially held America hostage for a vanity project and a campaign applause line that the American people saw clearly was never worth shutting down the government to achieve.”

Trump’s approval ratings have fallen in most public polls, including a Washington Post-ABC News survey released Friday that found 37 percent approve of his presidency and 58 percent disapprove.

Trump risks further angering independent voters who do not agree with the prolonged shutdown and conservatives who disapprove of him caving after 35 days with no win.

Conservative commentator Ann Coulter, whose criticism of Trump in mid-December helped inspire the president to shut the government in protest over wall funding, registered her disapproval of his Friday decision.

“Good news for George Herbert Walker Bush: As of today, he is no longer the biggest wimp ever to serve as President of the United States,” Coulter tweeted.

For months, Republican senators had been trying to warn Trump against a shutdown. Last June, Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.) and Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), the chamber’s point person on Homeland Security funding, met privately with Trump not only to tout their bipartisan border security spending package but also to nudge him away from a confrontation over the wall.

“I just said, ‘Shutdowns are miserable,’ ” Capito said Friday, recounting that Oval Office conversation. “The last one was miserable. And this one was double miserable, and so, you know, maybe you have to live through it to really get the sense of it.”

King faulted the conservative Freedom Caucus, led by Reps. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) and Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), both Trump confidants, for steering the president in the wrong direction.

“I hope he ignores them for the next three weeks,” King said. “It’s the charge of the light brigade. It’s the valley of death.”

It’s time for Democrats to be the grownups voters want

Actually, the Republicans love Ocasio-Cortez, in the same way Democrats love Mark Meadows and others in the Republicans’ far-right Freedom Caucus. They hate her politics, but they hope the young representative will sow division among Democrats. They were booing her because, this time, she didn’t.

The decision by Ocasio-Cortez and others on the far left about whether to work with or against their party will determine the fate of the new majority and of the resurgent progressive movement.

If they can stay unified, they will be an effective counterweight to the Trump lunacy, establishing the Democrats as the party to be entrusted with governing. But if they are split by internal divisions, they could become an easy foil for President Trump, lose suburban seats that gave them the House majority and possibly hand Trump a second term.

.. The country is on fire. This is the time for Democrats to be the grown-ups voters want.

It’s not the time for Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), mere hours after being sworn in, to tell a cheering crowd that “we’re gonna impeach the mother——.”

It’s not the time for Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), without waiting for the Mueller report, to announce plans to introduce articles of impeachment against Trump.

.. Her objection: a bit of accounting arcana known as “paygo.” She accused her Democratic colleagues of “a dark political maneuverdesigned to hamstring progress” on health care and other legislation. The passionate dissent was curious, given that the proposed rule is already current law, was a significant improvement over the Republican rule and, anyway, is routinely disregarded. Only two Democrats joined her rebellion.

.. She and other left-wing newcomers can have a salutary effect. Their protest over lobbyists’ presence at an unofficial orientation at Harvard for new members led to a rethinking of the event. Their advocacy for Medicare-for-all health coverage has nudged Pelosi to accept hearings.

But now comes decision time. Will Ocasio-Cortez and fellow hard-liners become the left’s version of the Freedom Caucus? Will they object to H.R. 1, the Democrats’ ethics and voting-rights package, because it doesn’t go far enough in banning corporate money? Will they withhold support for bills unless they can force votes on Medicare-for-all and abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement? Or will the firebrands build support for their causes without forcing vulnerable colleagues to cast suicidal votes on bills that won’t become law?

.. Democratic unity is what gives them the upper hand in the shutdown battle, as some Republicans openly question Trump’s strategy. Democratic unity also allows them to appeal to the large majority of Americans disgusted with Trump, as Pelosi did during her acceptance speech, uttering “bipartisan” seven times, praising George H.W. Bush and approvingly quoting Ronald Reagan on immigration.

.. A disastrous presidency has given progressives an extraordinary opportunity — if they don’t blow it by fighting among themselves.

Meet the Next Ted Cruz

In November, Chip Roy is likely to be elected to Congress. Top House Republicans worry that he’ll be to the right of the Freedom Caucus.

When Chip Roy was a top staffer for Ted Cruz, he was an architect of the Texas senator’s strategy to shut down the government over Obamacare.

Now, in all likelihood, he’s heading for Congress with a House seat of his own, and top Republicans worry he’s going to make Cruz look like a squishy moderate.

Roy is ready to play hardball with GOP leaders in Congress. He has pledged to support House Freedom Caucus founding chairman Jim Jordan for speaker, and is expected to quickly establish himself as one of the House GOP’s most outspoken and combative members.

.. As with so many conservatives, however, Roy is treading lightly when it comes to Donald Trump. Once a fierce critic—described by friends as a committed “Never Trump” advocate in 2016, when he was working in support of Cruz’s presidential campaign—the congressional hopeful now talks fondly of the president, praising his assault on “the swamp” and sharing his concern about a “deep state” acting as a shadow government.

And while most Republicans campaigning for Congress this November are touting the accomplishments of President Trump and his GOP majorities—tax reform, regulatory relief and a soaring number of federal judicial appointments—in the deep-red 21st congressional district of Texas, Roy is running on a different message: Republicans haven’t done nearly enough.

“If there is a thousand miles to go, we’ve gone maybe 50 miles,” Roy tells POLITICO’S “Off Message” podcast. “So now, we’ve got to focus on the things that the people really want to see done. We’ve got to have health care freedom, we’ve got to balance the budget and we’ve got to secure the border.”

.. In 2010, when that Tea Party wave first came to Washington—and then two years later when that second Tea Party wave came, with your former boss, Ted Cruz—the message was clear and very urgent: America was in danger of going over the cliff if something was not done dramatically to change course. But President Trump has made little mention of reducing the debt, reducing the deficit, cutting spending. He talked during the campaign about it being a great time to borrow. He is not someone who has ever campaigned on this idea of fiscal responsibility that seemed fundamental to what Republicans stood for.

Roy: I think if you take a step back and see what’s been accomplished in the last 20 months, we’ve seen things that make us happy. But you are rightfully pointing out that some of these core issues that drive not just [the] conservative base—not just Obamacare repeal, but health care freedom, border security, other issues where we have not seen them get it across the finish line. I am basically of the belief that this is it. If Republicans are given another chance this November, I’m hopeful that we will still be in the majority and have the chance to do the right thing. If we’re given that responsibility and fail, woe is us, because I don’t think we’re going to get any more bites at the apple.

..

What would you say is the difference today between conservatism and Trumpism?

Roy: Conservatism, at its core, is a belief in the Constitution, limited government, and giving people the ability to live their lives unfettered by government interferences so that we preserve and protect the liberties that God gave us. And we believe that generates wealth and opportunity and—importantly—empowers people at communities and the state level to be able to do the things we want to do to help one another.

Whether it’s the Christian principles of wanting to help your neighbor and do unto others or whatever it might be driving your morality, we believe in doing good, helping people through charities, through community action, through churches, through Boy Scouts or groups and organizations. That is the conservative ethos, and unfortunately, the actions in Washington get everything focused on Washington action to “solve problems,” [which] seeps into the supposedly conservative mindset and rhetoric. And they feel like, “Well, we’ve got to go do something.” And that results in more government spending and more programs and takes us farther away from our core constitutional values.

I’m not sure I can define—or even want to try to define—Trumpism versus conservatism. What we see right now is that the swamp or the establishment or the status quo or whatever you want to call the inner workings of Washington, D.C.—which were not working—needed to be challenged. And that challenge began years ago.

It began when Mike Lee was elected instead of Bob Bennett, Ted Cruz instead of David Dewhurst, Rand Paul instead of Trey Grayson in Kentucky, Marco Rubio instead of Charlie Crist in Florida. Those were tectonic shifts in the party, and we saw the rise of the Freedom Caucus. You’ve now got a block of people in Washington saying, “I’m going to represent the people and the conservative values that the people sent me here to represent.” And that’s at odds with the power brokers [who] want to maintain control at all costs.

..

Alberta: But it seems that Trump has very successfully not just remade the party in his image, but coalesced the party behind him. And I’m wondering, as a guy who is going to join the House Freedom Caucus, is that a source of concern for you when you think about runaway spending, when you think more broadly about Article One? We heard so much about Article One during the Obama years from conservatives on the Hill. You don’t hear much about it anymore.

Roy: Well, you’ll hear me use the phrase “Make Article One great again,” which I’ve said is really important no matter who is in the White House. The job of Congress [is] to check the executive branch no matter who is there. Whether it’s free-trade issues, NAFTA, whatever it might be.

.. I think over the last 21 months on Capitol Hill, many Republicans will acknowledge that they have not been sufficiently aggressive in checking the Trump administration—certainly as far as oversight is concerned. Do you share that concern? For instance, there are concerns about Trump’s financial interests in foreign countries. Do you believe that the president should release his tax returns? Or if not, that the legislative branch should compel him to do so?

.. There are many Republicans in the delegation who feel that President Trump’s concept of a border wall is not feasible and that it would not be effective. And there is some conversation coming out of the White House that he has begun to understand that his initial vision is not something that’s really executable. If you, Chip Roy, were placed in charge of securing the border—as it relates to the issue of a physical barrier—what would you like to see?

.. Roy: I was just down in Laredo, down with the Border Patrol. And of the 72 miles of the Laredo sector, how many miles do you think has not a fence, not a wall, but even a road that allows you to navigate parallel to the Rio Grande? Two miles. They can only navigate two miles of that whole sector. Cartels have operational control of the other side of the river. [Border Patrol has] no cell signal often. They often don’t have a radio signal, and they’re being asked to man our border and to secure it.

The result is that MS-13 has strengthened. The result is that cartels choose who comes across the river, and if you try to come across yourself through a coyote, you are at the mercy of the cartels. We’ve allowed that to be the case: Women getting sold and children getting sold into the sex trafficking business; children riding on the top of train cars.

We’ve allowed that to become a broken system that is bad for immigrants and bad for our sovereignty. So what do you do to fix it? Of course you need physical barriers. In Southern California in the mid-1990s, there was no real fencing on a good chunk of the border, and we had over 600,000 apprehensions per year in Southern California. Now, we have triple-layer fencing in Southern California. Those apprehensions are down to the 30,000 range. Now, people say, “Well, it didn’t work: People have migrated to Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.” That indicates it actually worked.

.. Texas has unique features. We’ve got ranchers [who] need access to the Rio Grande. We’ve got Big Bend National Park, where you’ve got a lot of beautiful vistas. Fine, you know what? Start down in the Gulf of Mexico, start down in Brownsville, start down in the valley working up the river. Build fences, clear the cane, make sure that [Border Patrol agents] have the resources they need—cameras and radios and better cell signals. When you get to a rancher and that rancher says, “Well, I need access to the river.” “Awesome. We’re going to give you a 100-yard opening or a 500-yard opening or whatever you need, and then we’ll put cameras and we’ll make sure there’s a Border Patrol person manning that post.”

.. Alberta: If, in fact, you go to Congress, describe to me your mentality coming in. Obviously, you worked as chief of staff for Sen. Cruz, and he—and you along with him—developed reputations as sort of sharp-elbowed operators in those first couple of years when he was on the Hill. Most famously with the government shutdown in 2013.

I’ve talked to some folks in town, and some of the leadership folks and their allies are a little nervous about Chip Roy—“This guy is going to be to the right of the Freedom Caucus.” And then I talk to folks in the conservative movement who are thrilled. They think that they’re getting a needed reinforcement and a guy who, quite frankly, might not go weak at the knees the way that some of the other so-called conservatives in Washington have. How do you view your role in today’s Republican Party if you arrive in Congress next year?

.. Roy: My job is to set the baseline. I don’t want to have a discussion about health care freedom or repealing Obamacare that starts with the false notion that somehow pre-existing conditions governs how you establish insurance and structure it—we’re viewing through the lens of insurance coverage instead of making sure that people have access to doctors and can afford health care.

.. process does matter. That’s kind of what I’m getting at. We ought to think about this differently. We shouldn’t be thinking about it in terms of all of the discussions that happen behind closed doors and then come together and say, “OK.” The leadership drops the bill and says, “This is the bill.”
.. Roy: We should all be extremely critical and circumspect of anybody running for office. That’s our job as Americans. Whether it’s Ted Cruz, whether it’s Donald Trump, whether it’s somebody in the Congress, whether it’s me, we should all be looking at it through the eye of,
  • “Are you doing what you said you would do?
  • Are you representing me the way I think you should?
  • Are you following the Constitution?”

I was viewing it through that lens, and I think it was reasonable for Americans to go, “Well, wait a minute. Who are you and what are you about?” I knew what Senator Cruz was about. I had prayed alongside him. I had worked side by side with him. I knew where he was..

.. I don’t always agree with him on every way he tweets or everything he says, but if you look through what we’ve accomplished, it is truly hard to be critical from a conservative perspective on a lot of fronts. I’d like [the Trump administration] to be better on spending, but I really think that if you look through what we’ve accomplished on regulatory relief, on tax relief, on judges, on the embassy in Jerusalem, on taking on the swamp and truly changing the game in Washington from that perspective, it’s hard to argue with those results, even if I might have an issue with one or two things. You don’t agree with everybody, as they say.

.. One thing you talk about in your campaign is this idea of a “deep state” that is in some sense acting as a shadow government—unchecked and out of control. It’s interesting because often, the most damaging leaks to President Trump have come from within his West Wing from folks close to him. When you talk about the deep state, what exactly do you mean and what is your real concern?

.. If, for example, Secretary [Betsy] DeVos at the Department of Education wants to try to push school choice, and there’s some bureaucrat that she’s hired who is a conservative school-choice advocate, if a future president comes in and a secretary of Education doesn’t want to advance that policy, that policy shouldn’t be being advanced by an unelected person deep within the Department of Education. This is why I believe a lot of that needs to be thinned out so that we don’t have those issues. Why do we have these massive entities up there that are largely unchecked?

.. You’ve brought us full circle from talking about Rick Perry and his “oops” moment. If you were king for a day, would you eliminate any of these departments or agencies?

Roy: I think so, but it’s kind of like talking about the wall. I don’t want to refer to it as metaphorical as much as I just want the power eliminated and the number of people making these decisions unchecked reduced. I want spending reduced on all these things. The number of agencies is almost academic. Fine, eliminate one of them. Could you take some of the pieces of the Department of Energy, with all due respect to my former boss who is currently the secretary, and put it at the Department of Defense because it’s nuclear-related? It’s like a corporate reorganization. You can reorganize all you want; the question is where’s the decision-making occurring? How many bureaucrats are there doing it? How much of that should be being done in Washington or not?

 

House Republicans cannot be allowed to obstruct justice

Former U.S. district judge John S. Martin, writing in The Post to debunk the baseless proposal by House Freedom Caucus members to impeach Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, observes:

The actions of the Freedom Caucus members are not only baseless, they are also shameful. While they call for the appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate Rosenstein, it may be more appropriate to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate an attempt to corruptly obstruct justice by members of Congress who so obviously use their office to intimidate the deputy attorney general and to undermine the credibility of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation.

.. Their inexcusable acts include:

  • The caper by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) in which he scurried over to the White House to review classified documents and then tried to push the fake “unmasking” scandal;
  • Nunes’s memo falsely stating that information about the Christopher Steele dossier’s origins was omitted from the Foreign Intelligence Security Court warrant application to conduct surveillance on suspected spy Carter Page;
  • The outing of a confidential intelligence source;
  • The badgering of Rosenstein for documents from an ongoing investigation and the bogus impeachment articles cooked up by Reps. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) and Jim Jordan (R-Ohio);
  • False accusations against the FBI (e.g. accusing FBI officials of aiding Hillary Clinton in the campaign) that were discredited by the inspector general’s report; and
  • Refusal to obtain relevant documents (e.g. the blocked phone number that Donald Trump Jr. called in close proximity to the Russia meeting in June 2016).

.. Congressmen, Trump lawyers and White House aides conferring with intent to mislead investigators and the public, to disable the inquiry and/or to discredit law enforcement sounds an awful lot like obstruction of justice. Conversations or documents relating to that sort of conspiracy are in no way privileged.

.. Norman Eisen, Laurence Tribe and Caroline Frederickson wrote in February: “Endeavoring to stop an investigation, if done with corrupt intent, may constitute obstruction of justice. Plotting to assist such action may be conspiracy to obstruct justice. Normally, what is called ‘speech or debate immunity would provide a strong bulwark against any such liability for Mr. Nunes or his staff.” However, they argued, “Mr. Nunes and company may have ranged so far afield that those protections no longer apply. Under the clause, mere peripheral connection to legislative acts cannot serve as a fig leaf to shield criminal conduct.” They argued that if “a member or staff employee of the House Intelligence Committee engaged with the White House to stifle the special counsel inquiry, it would be difficult to see how such collaboration would be” protected by the speech or debate clause.

.. An investigation into Republican House members’ antics is critical if we want to hold them responsible for actions injurious to our criminal justice system. It is also necessary in order to uncover who if anyone they were colluding with on the White House side of the operation. Any White House official and/or lawyer — with or without the president’s knowledge — scheming to obstruct the investigation in concert with members of Congress needs to be investigated and held accountable.

.. Rather than simply play defense on behalf of Rosenstein and the Russian investigators, defenders of the rule of law need to go on offense, demanding Nunes, Meadows and Jordan come clean on their actions in support of a president trying to thwart a legitimate investigation. It all needs to come out.