At several points in his brief political career, Donald Trump has tried, as he calls it, to be presidential. He’s tamped down his freewheeling speaking style to read from a teleprompter, which he once jokingly threatened to outlaw, and stuck to a more traditional script.
On Tuesday, he did it again, delivering his first-ever address to the nation from the Oval Office amid the second-longest government shutdown in U.S. history.
As at those other moments, the fact that Trump was straining to be presidential said more about the stakes than his words. Facing a Democratic House determined to stand up to him, Trump has put all of his chips on a dramatic showdown over his campaign promise to build a wall on the Mexican border.
By the standards of a typical presidency, the nine-minute televised address was fairly subdued. Trump made no new concessions and mostly repeated arguments he’s made elsewhere for Democrats to agree to $5.7 billion to build a border wall in exchange for ending a partial government shutdown.
“Some have suggested a barrier is immoral,” Trump said, referencing a recent line from Speaker Nancy Pelosi without naming her. “Then why do wealthy politicians build walls, fences and gates around their homes? They don’t build walls because they hate the people on the outside, but because they love the people on the inside.”
Later in the speech, Trump said it could be resolved in a “a 45-minute meeting.” But in just that kind of meeting on Friday with Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, he sounded very different notes, beginning with a 15-minute rant. Shortly after the top Democratic lawmakers took their seats, the president told them he would not budge below the $5.7 billion he’s demanded for a border wall and that he was happy keeping the government partially closed for months or even years. Trump was “like a bull in a china shop,” according to a Democratic source familiar with the exchanges.
Then Trump took the conversation in a surprising direction. “Why don’t you use this for impeachment?” Trump asked Pelosi, according to his own account of the conversation. Pelosi told him House Democrats weren’t looking to impeach him. It was something of a tell. A sitting president bringing up the specter of impeachment on an unrelated conversation seemed to acknowledge that more is hangs in the balance in the negotiations over ending the shutdown than funding the “big, beautiful wall” Trump promised on the campaign trail.
Trump now faces divided government for the first time in his political career, bringing with it the threat of investigations into his campaign, his business and his Administration. For a man whose career was spent at the top of a family-run business, it also means he may have to compromise or accept defeat on certain goals.
The border wall has become not just a symbol of Trump’s restrictive approach to immigration, but a potent metaphor of his political power. For the White House, any concession on this signature campaign promise risks teaching Democrats that they can bully him with their newfound legislative power for the remainder of his first term.
If Trump ends up weakened from the fight, the White House fears that Democrats may be emboldened to demand more for initiatives Trump has endorsed, such as reducing drug prices and spending on transportation and infrastructure needs. On the flip side, if Trump wins the shutdown fight, the White House sees a chance to divide his critics on the Left ahead of a fractious presidential primary.
In Trump’s view, politics is a zero-sum game, and the winner of this standoff will have more political leverage in the next two years of investigations, policy-making and even possibly impeachment proceedings.
There’s plenty at stake in the short term, too. Trump used the airtime Tuesday, and will use his trip to McAllen, Texas, on Thursday, to lay out his case for why a border wall is necessary and why Democrats should give him more funding to stop the increasing numbers of families and children arriving at the southern border from Central America and deter more from attempting the dangerous overland trek. Trump said that illegal immigration strains public resources and drives down wages, and that “vast quantities” of illegal drugs come over the Southern border, and “thousands” of Americans have been killed by undocumented immigrants over the years.
The major broadcast networks agreed to break into their lucrative evening programs for Trump’s address, on the premise that the president would be addressing the shutdown, a major news event, despite concerns that Trump would use the airtime for an overtly political message. Democratic leaders were granted a brief on-air rebuttal as well: Pelosi accused Trump of “holding the American people hostage” and “manufacturing a crisis,” and Schumer blasted his “ineffective, unnecessary border wall.”
Trump’s aides told the director and camera operator that the camera could zoom in closer than previous presidents, because Trump has so much television experience. The camera zoomed in slowly as Trump delivered the line describing the situation as “a crisis of the heart, a crisis of the soul.”
In the meantime, some 800,000 employees in nine federal departments, about a quarter of the federal workforce, have been furloughed or working without pay since Dec. 22. If the two sides don’t come to an agreement by Friday, those workers won’t get a paycheck. If the impasse stretches to Sunday, it will be the longest shutdown on record.
West Wing aides have been scrambling for days to keep up with the president’s moves. On Jan. 3, Trump surprised a group of immigration officers and Border Patrol agents meeting with him in the Oval Office when he said he wanted the agents to describe the need for a border wall directly to the White House press corps and walked with them into the briefing room for his first ever visit. The episode broke into the day’s news cycle that had been dominated by footage of newly elected Democrats taking the oath of office. The next day, following his contentious Oval Office meeting with Pelosi, Schumer and Republican Congressional leaders, Trump abruptly decided to hold an hour-long news conference on a chilly afternoon outside in the Rose Garden, during which he said he would consider the extraordinary step of using emergency powers to build a border wall if Democrats refused to fund one.
Trump and his team are framing the issue as a solution to what they portray as an illegal immigration crisis, with the stakes as high as protecting American citizens from violence and terrorism. “I believe we made progress in establishing the fact that we do have a humanitarian and security crisis at our southern border,” Vice President Mike Pence told a small group of reporters gathered in his office Monday afternoon of his weekend meetings with Democrats. Pence confirmed that the White House counsel’s office is “looking at” ways to legally use emergency funding for a wall. “There’s a real sense of urgency,” echoed Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, also present at the briefing. “The crisis is getting worse.”
Trump’s conservative supporters have stuck with him as he pushes for tools to slow illegal immigration. “I feel like a fight over wall funding, a fight over border security, is the right fight morally because this is no way to run an immigration system in a country,” Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union, told TIME. But on the other side, Democrats talk about the fight as it relates to the symbolism of Trump’s border wall. “A wall is an immorality between countries,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said on Jan 3. This wrangling over semantics is important; how the shutdown becomes defined may determine who takes the blame for it, says GOP pollster Frank Luntz. “If it’s about effective border security, Trump wins,” Luntz says. “If it’s just about a wall, the Democrats win.”
The weekend talks were hardly productive and, perhaps tellingly, did not take place inside the White House. Assembled in Pence’s ornate office on the second floor of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, across a driveway from the West Wing, more than 40 aides took turns talking past one another. One Democratic participant said the sessions were designed so they could say they were talking, but not actually negotiating a deal.
Congressional aides said most of the Administration’s view was conveyed by White House senior adviser and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, who refused to retreat from the President’s wall-or-bust demands. Throughout the marathon meetings, the Vice President sat smack in the middle of the talks as Hill staffers to Democratic members explained that their bosses would not bend, either. Republicans repeatedly asked Pence and Kushner what the exact parameters of Trump’s demands were, something fellow Republicans felt no one but the President knew.
The Sunday session, aides said, started almost an hour late. Aides exhausted the small talk in pretty short order as they were kept waiting. But when Pence finally arrived, he came with a three-page outline of what, precisely, the White House position was. The list of demands extended beyond wall funding and included more money to hire immigration officers and Border Patrol agents and add bed space to immigration detention facilities, among other provisions.
Democrats told the White House team that the government must be restarted before talk of border additions can take place, a message Pelosi and Schumer reiterated Tuesday night. “Separate the shutdown from the arguments over border security,” Schumer pleaded in his rebuttal. Pence reminded the aides over the weekend that the President would not go for that and is demanding that the government stay shut until he gets his border wall. “The federal government remains shut down for one reason, and one reason only,” Trump said in his address. “Because Democrats will not fund border security.” Trump said he thinks the standoff could be solved in “a 45-minute meeting” and that he has invited Congressional leadership back to the White House on Wednesday.
House Democrats, mindful that they just got the gavels, are moving ahead with stand-alone bills to reopen the shuttered pieces of the bureaucracy. But those moves are largely symbolic, because Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will not bring anything to a vote that can’t win White House approval. Starting the year with a partial government shutdown hurtling towards being the longest history hardly inspires optimism about the relationship between the White House and the newly empowered House Democrats. Both sides are digging in their heels in the fight, trying not to be the first to blink in this new era of divided government. At the moment, Trump is taking the brunt of the blame for the shutdown in polls. According to a HuffPost/Yougov poll conducted in the final days of December, a 51 percent majority of Americans believe Trump is at least somewhat responsible for the shutdown, with 44 percent thinking Democrats have some responsibility, and 36 percent giving partial blame to congressional Republicans.
Luntz, the pollster, said the impact of the shutdown hasn’t been felt broadly yet, and the current public perception of the stalemate is that “it’s silly politicians playing silly games.” When Trump addressed the nation from behind the Resolute Desk Tuesday night, he tried to lay blame for those games at the feet of the Democrats, and how his message is received could determine who wins, and who loses.
With Alana Abramson and Philip Elliott in Washington