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.
Arguably, that moment proved a precursor to this one as conservatives angry at his apostasy, led by a onetime backbench congressman from Georgia named Newt Gingrich, rose to power within the Republican Party and toppled the old establishment. The harder-edged Gingrich revolution in some ways foreshadowed Mr. Trump’s extraordinary takeover of the party.
Mr. Meacham said the current world of cable talk and relentless partisanship took shape during Mr. Bush’s era. “He saw it all coming, and he didn’t like it,” he said.
Mark K. Updegrove, the author of “The Last Republicans,” about the two Bush presidencies, said, “In so many ways, Bush was the antithesis of the Republican leadership we see today.” He embodied, Mr. Updegrove added, “the
- civility and
of the best of the World War II generation. He played tough but fair, making friends on both sides of the aisle and rejecting the notion of politics as a zero-sum game.”
.. For all of the condolences and tributes pouring in to the Bush home in Houston from every corner of the world on Saturday, Mr. Trump’s very presidency stands as a rebuke to Mr. Bush. Never a proponent of “kinder and gentler” politics, Mr. Trump prefers a brawl, even with his own party. The “new world order” of free-trade, alliance-building internationalism that Mr. Bush championed has been replaced by Mr. Trump’s “America First” defiance of globalism.
.. Mr. Trump has demonstrated that he sees the go-along-to-get-along style that defined Mr. Bush’s presidency as inadequate to advance the nation in a hostile world. Gentility and dignity, hallmarks of Mr. Bush, are signs of weakness to Mr. Trump. In his view, Mr. Bush’s version of leadership left the United States exploited by allies and adversaries, whether on economics or security.
.. Mr. Bush was, in effect, president of the presidents’ club, the father of one other commander in chief and the father figure to another, Bill Clinton. Jimmy Carter always appreciated that Mr. Bush’s administration treated him better than Ronald Reagan’s or Mr. Clinton’s, while Barack Obama expressed admiration for the elder Mr. Bush when he ran for the White House.
.. Mr. Obama was among the last people to see Mr. Bush alive.
.. “What the hell was that, by the way, thousand points of light?” Mr. Trump asked scornfully at a campaign rally in Great Falls, Mont., in July. “What did that mean? Does anyone know? I know one thing: Make America great again, we understand. Putting America first, we understand. Thousand points of light, I never quite got that one.”
.. “It’s so easy to be presidential,” Mr. Trump said at a campaign rally in Wheeling, W.Va. “But instead of having 10,000 people outside trying to get into this packed arena, we’d have about 200 people standing right there. O.K.? It’s so easy to be presidential. All I have to do is ‘Thank you very much for being here, ladies and gentlemen. It’s great to see you off — you’re great Americans. Thousand points of light.’ Which nobody has really figured out.”
.. In 1988, when Mr. Bush was seeking the presidency, Mr. Trump offered himself as a running mate. Mr. Bush never took the idea seriously, deeming it “strange and unbelievable,”
.. “I don’t know much about him, but I know he’s a blowhard. And I’m not too excited about him being a leader.” Rather than being motivated by public service, Mr. Bush said, Mr. Trump seemed to be driven by “a certain ego.”
The ostensible purpose of your ban is to keep Americans safe from terrorists by barring visitors, refugees and immigrants from Iran, Libya, North Korea, Somalia, Syria, Venezuela and Yemen. So let’s consider, nonhysterically, what such a ban might have accomplished had it come into force in recent years.
It would not have barred Ramzi Yousef, the Kuwait-born Pakistani who helped mastermind the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.
It would have been irrelevant in the case of Terry Nichols and Timothy McVeigh, the American perpetrators of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing in which 168 people were murdered.
It would have been irrelevant in the case of Eric Rudolph, the Christian terrorist who killed one person at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and later bombed abortion clinics and a gay bar.
It would not have barred Mohamed Atta, ringleader of the 9/11 hijackers. Atta was an Egyptian citizen who arrived in the U.S. on a visa issued by the American Embassy in Berlin in May 2000.
It would not have barred Atta’s accomplices, all in the United States on legal visas. Fifteen of them were from Saudi Arabia, two from the United Arab Emirates and another from Lebanon.
It would have been irrelevant in the case of the 2001 anthrax attacks, in which five people were killed. The attacks are widely believed (without conclusive proof) to have been the work of the late Bruce Ivins, an American microbiologist.
It would not have barred Richard Reid, who tried to blow up a Miami-bound airliner in 2001 with explosives hidden in his shoes. Reid was a London-born Briton who converted to Islam as an adult.
The Trump administration insisted it didn’t have a policy of separating children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border. It said that it was merely following the law. And it said “Congress alone can fix” the mess.]
It just admitted that all that was nonsense — and that it badly overplayed its hand.
Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, who on Sunday and Monday insisted that this wasn’t an actual policy and that the administration’s hands are tied, will now have to untie them as the White House will reverse the supposedly nonexistent policy.
.. It’s at once an admission that the politics of the issue had gotten out of hand and that the administration’s arguments were completely dishonest. Virtually everything it said about the policy is tossed aside with this executive action. It’s the political equivalent of waving the white flag and the legal equivalent of confessing to making false statements. Rather than letting Congress rebuke it, the White House is rebuking itself and trying to save some face.
.. But that’s the opposite of the approach the administration had said was demanded by the situation for the past several days.
Here’s a sampling:
- “Congress and the courts created this problem, and Congress alone can fix it. Until then, we will enforce every law we have on the books to defend the sovereignty and security of the United States.” — Nielsen
- “It’s not a policy. Our policy at DHS is to do what we’re sworn to do, which is to enforce the law.” — Nielsen
- “The only [other] option is to not enforce the law at all.” — Nielsen
- “I don’t want children taken away from parents. And when you prosecute the parents for coming in illegally, which should happen, you have to take the children away. Now we don’t have to prosecute them, but then we’re not prosecuting them for coming in illegally.” — Trump
- “You can’t do it through an executive order.” — Trump
And not only did the administration say it was bound by man’s law to do what it was doing; it said it was also bound by God’s law.
.. And it makes clear that, from Day One, this was a political gambit to force an immigration bill through. It didn’t work.