WASHINGTON ― President Donald Trump, clad in a golf shirt and golf hat under a warm South Florida sun, hitting a drive off the tee while Secret Service agents protecting him are forced to work without paychecks, possibly for weeks, because Congress wouldn’t pay for Trump’s “Great Wall.”
Such is the nightmare public relations scenario facing the White House less than a week before the Department of Homeland Security and other key government agencies run out of money at midnight Friday while Trump is scheduled to fly that day to his Mar-a-Lago resort for a 16-day vacation.
The U.S. Secret Service is among the half-dozen agencies in the quarter-million-employee DHS, which also includes the U.S. Coast Guard and the Transportation Security Administration. Other major agencies facing a shutdown include the departments of state, treasury and interior. Many of the affected employees would be deemed essential and be forced to work anyway. None would be paid during the shutdown and would have to get by on savings or short-term loans.
Rick Tyler, a former aide to the man who engineered the last extended government shutdown in 2013, Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, said that Trump will cave in the days to come.
“The only leverage in shutting down the government is who gets the blame for it. And he’s already taken the blame for it,” Tyler said, predicting that Trump will approve whatever Congress gives him.
“The only leverage in shutting down the government is who gets the blame for it. And he’s already taken the blame for it.”
For now, Trump and his key immigration adviser, Stephen Miller, have once again been talking up the possibility of a partial government shutdown to force Congress to appropriate billions of dollars to pay for his long-promised wall along the Mexican border.
“We’re going to do whatever is necessary to build the border wall, to stop this ongoing crisis of illegal immigration,” Miller said Sunday to CBS News, adding that that would include, “if it comes to it,” a shutdown.
Top White House communications adviser Mercedes Schlapp was somewhat less assertive while talking to reporters Monday but insisted that Congress had to come up with more than the $1.6 billion that Democrats have agreed to spend on border security enhancements ― but not a “wall” ― to resolve the problem.
“We don’t want to get to the point where we shut down the government,” she said. “But we’ve got to find increased spending for border security.”
But House Republicans appear to lack the votes to pass a bill with the $5 billion in wall funding that Trump is demanding without Democratic help, while Senate Republicans need at least nine Democrats to pass a spending bill.
How Trump will react if Democrats do not give him what he wants is unclear.
Trump enjoying his favorite pastime at his private club while those sworn to protect his life with their own deal with cash-flow problems in their households would be tough to defend, meaning that Trump likely would cancel or postpone his golf vacation until a new spending bill is approved. Conversely, though, his love of golfing probably makes a shutdown unlikely to begin with.
“He’ll get mad and then sign it and claim the military is going to build the wall, which it won’t,” Tyler said. “And then everybody will forget about it.”
Building a wall along the southern border and forcing Mexico to pay for it was Trump’s signature campaign promise, uttered for the first time in his Trump Tower speech announcing his candidacy. He repeated it hundreds of times from June 2015 to Nov. 8, 2016, when he won the presidency.
But the “making Mexico pay” part was quietly dropped almost immediately upon taking office. In a phone call with Mexico’s president at the time, Trump told Enrique Peña Nieto that he understood that Mexico would not pay for the wall but asked him not to say that publicly so Trump would not lose standing among his base.
Since that January 2017 conversation, Trump has signed a half-dozen spending bills that cover DHS even though they included no money to build his wall. He appeared to come closest to vetoing one and forcing a shutdown last March, after he watched Fox News evening hosts criticize him for planning to approve a $1.3 trillion spending bill with zero dollars for his wall. He signed it anyway the following morning and said he did so because of all the money it contained for the military.
Heading into the summer, Trump again started threatening to shut down the government at the end of the budget year in September if he didn’t get his wall money, but then he started backing down as that deadline approached. He began arguing that he would have more leverage after the November midterm elections because of all the additional Republicans who would be elected.
“We’re going to do it immediately after the election,” he said in a Fox News interview conducted from one of his rallies on Sept. 7. “We do it right after the election where, hopefully, frankly, it will be easy because we’ll have more Republicans, not less.”
But Trump and Republicans got clobbered in the November midterms, picking up just two seats in the Senate despite having the most favorable map in decades while losing 40 seats in the House and control of that chamber.
Which means that instead of gaining leverage by waiting until after the election, Trump lost a good deal of it ― an altered dynamic made clear during a meeting last week with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.). Both told him they were not interested in building the sort of wall he promised and urged Trump not to go forward with the shutdown.
Schumer on Sunday repeated that theme during an interview with NBC News. “We should not let a temper tantrum, threats, push us in the direction of doing something that everybody, even our Republican colleagues, know is wrong,” Schumer said. “If the president wants to debate the wall next year, he can…. But he shouldn’t use innocent workers as hostage for his temper tantrum to sort of throw a bone to his base.”