Trump Takes Back Seat in Shutdown-Ending Talks

Despite past rhetoric and boasts of deal-making, president let Congress figure it out

President Donald Trump addresses staff at the White House on Saturday while lawmakers worked on an agreement to end the government shutdown. (Courtesy Joyce N. Boghosian/White House)
President Donald Trump addresses staff at the White House on Saturday while lawmakers worked on an agreement to end the government shutdown. (Courtesy Joyce N. Boghosian/White House)
Posted January 23, 2018 at 5:03am

President Donald Trump on Saturday, amid a government shutdown that tarnished the anniversary of his first year in office, was surrounded by a room of people at the White House, apparently hanging on his every word. But these were his own staffers, not lawmakers working to turn the federal lights back on.

Trump and his top aides, even before the government went dark at 12 a.m. Saturday, tried to assign blame for the shutdown to Democrats as well as responsibility for ending it. Yet there is a sense in Washington that the president, who as a candidate said his business-world success made him uniquely qualified to cut deals with Congress, left the heavy lifting to others.

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, while announcing his caucus would vote on a three-week stopgap measure thanks to a commitment from Senate GOP leaders to hold a floor debate on immigration in the coming weeks, described Trump as uninvolved over the weekend as senators inched toward a deal.

“Since our meeting in the Oval Office on Friday, the president and I have not spoken, and the White House refused to engage in negotiations over the weekend,” the New York Democrat said in a quiet chamber Monday. “The great deal-making president sat on the sidelines.

“Despite and because of this frustration, I’ve been having conversations with the Republican leader over the weekend about a path forward,” Schumer said, noting there were offers and counteroffers bandied about.

Watch: Schumer Says GOP Majority Has 17 Days to Reach Deal on DACA

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According to the minority leader and others, it was a group of some 20 Republican and Democratic senators, along with Schumer and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who came up with the possible path ahead.

“Virtually no involvement I am told,” said a former senior Senate aide who remains in contact with leadership offices, when asked by Roll Call just how involved Trump was. “It put McConnell in a tricky position.”

[Photos: Life on the Hill Was a Bit Complicated Monday Morning]

Hitting back

Senior White House aides, however, described the chief executive as playing a big role.

“What the president did clearly worked,” Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters Monday during her daily press briefing. “The president was putting pressure and standing firm on exactly what he was willing to do and what he wasn’t.”

Her top deputy, Raj Shah, said earlier that “the president was certainly involved,” adding, “We think the president’s engagement was right. … We’re happy with the president’s engagement.”

Over the weekend, the White House was so eager to portray Trump as working to end the stalemate that it released a series of photos of him at work. He had traded his necktie for a white “Make America Great Again” hat. Staff members and Secret Service agents were nearby, and he was on the phone in one image — but there was nary a lawmaker in any.

White House aides say the president spent the three days of the shutdown talking to lawmakers on the telephone and taking meetings with senior staff and Cabinet members who helped broker a deal.

He also tweeted.

Earlier Monday, Sanders told a smaller group of reporters that the president also spent time “managing the shutdown.”

“That’s his job as the president of the United States … to look for every way he can to mitigate the damage that the Democrats are doing through the shutdown,” she said.

Change of tune

How the deal to reopen the government came about, however, could leave Trump and his staff with an optics problem. For one, polls show voters put plenty of blame on him. Also, remaining hunkered with just his staff and Cabinet officials flew directly in the face of how citizen Trump said President Barack Obama should have handled a 2013 shutdown.

Back then, Trump called into “Fox & Friends” to say Obama was responsible for that government shutdown. In fact, Trump contended that whoever is president when the federal apparatus is shuttered should be blamed.

“It always happens to be the top. I mean, the problems start from the top and have to get solved from the top,” Trump said at the time. “The president is the leader, and he’s got to get everybody in a room and he’s got to lead.”

That followed calls last week, even from McConnell, for the president to clearly state what he wanted in legislation to address immigration matters. While Trump might have allowed lawmakers to end the shutdown, even Republican members say he will have to be directly involved in immigration negotiations.

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“I think there is a middle ground here that could be broached and I think it is going to take the president to be actively involved,” Sen. Mike Rounds said.

“As Sen. McConnell has indicated, we really do need some certainty from the president to get the House on board,” the South Dakota Republican told Bloomberg Television. “I don’t think the House will come up with anything until they know for sure that the president would sign it. And I think this is a real opportunity for some leadership to show up and to make a grand bargain.”

Passing immigration legislation will again require a few  Democratic senators to vote with Republicans. But there’s little doubt things will again get testy. One major reason is a lack of trust.

“I wouldn’t say it’s the highest level of trust,” Sanders said, adding that White House officials hope “we can reach an agreement on responsible immigration reform.” About Senate Democrats, she said: “We hope that they’ll come to the table to actually make a deal and [are] less interested in playing political games.”