After Self-Created Drama, Trump Signs Omnibus

After grousing about deal, president asks for line-item veto

President Donald Trump at a business session with governors at the White House earlier this year. He has a way of weakening opponents with nicknames his critics call offensive. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
President Donald Trump at a business session with governors at the White House earlier this year. He has a way of weakening opponents with nicknames his critics call offensive. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Posted March 23, 2018 at 1:54pm

Updated at 2:24 p.m. | President Donald Trump on Friday backed down from a seemingly out-of-the-blue veto threat when he signed a $1.3 trillion omnibus spending package that averts a government shutdown he nearly triggered after lawmakers left town.

The double presidential about-face came on yet another chaotic day at Trump’s White House. Aides, Secret Service agents and journalists scurried about for hours, with the dramatics culminating with Trump announcing a 1 p.m. press conference for which his staff was clearly not prepared.

Trump is no fan of the sprawling spending measure, which he called “crazy” and “ridiculous.” He pinned his signature mostly on ensuring U.S. military forces have what they need. “My highest duty is to keep America safe,” he said, saying the bill got so “big” only because Democrats insisted on additional domestic spending in return for more defense dollars.

But he also delivered a warning to lawmakers, though conservative figures quickly slammed him for saying it.

He vowed that he would never sign “another bill like this” into law, later saying he “looked very seriously at the veto.” 

“But because of the great gains we’ve been able to make for our military, that overrode the veto,” the president said after signing the legislation in private.

In true showman form, he launched his decision announcement on the omnibus spending bill by alluding to “the ridiculous situation that happened over the last week.” He then had Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross talk about a possible announcement soon about South Korean trade relations.

The president cited a list of gripes about the bill before ticking off the weapon systems it would pay for. He then called on Congress to hand him a line-item veto for spending bills. Trump also again called for a major Senate rule change.

“I’m calling on Congress to give me a line-item veto, and the Senate must end the filibuster rule,” he said. “And without the filibuster rule, it’ll happen … like magic.” But his own experiences with failed health overhaul efforts and a tough tax overhaul fight suggest otherwise.

After his senior staff spent Thursday guaranteeing he would sign the massive piece of legislation, the president abruptly flipped the script Friday morning. And it happened — as it so often does — via a tweet. He wrote around 9 a.m. he was “considering” vetoing the omnibus bill passed overnight because it does not address the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which he himself targeted for expiration, nor fully fund his proposed southern border wall.

On DACA, Trump at one point addressed those protected by the program directly, telling them: “The Republicans are with you. The Democrats … fought us every single inch of the way. They did not want DACA in this bill.” And he told them Democrats are “using you.”

There were signs earlier in the week that the president had reservations about the legislation. Speaker Paul D. Ryan was dispatched to the White House Wednesday afternoon to sell Trump on its merits.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell stepped out of a meeting to take a call from a frustrated Trump.

The two GOP leaders succeeded in talking the president into signing the bill, or so they thought.

In signature fashion, he soon went from upset with the deal to declaring victory. By Wednesday night, Trump tweeted that he “Got $1.6 Billion to start Wall on Southern Border, rest will be forthcoming.”

“Most importantly, got $700 Billion to rebuild our Military, $716 Billion next year…most ever,” he wrote, taking a shot at the opposition party: “Had to waste money on Dem giveaways in order to take care of military pay increase and new equipment.”

But House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said Trump was mischaracterizing the amount of money in the omnibus for his promised U.S.-Mexico border wall.

“There’s some resources for fencing and repairs and the rest there … but some of that money is for technology and other ways to protect our border,” Pelosi said Thursday on the House floor. “If you want to think that you’re getting a wall, you just think it and sign the bill.”

Her comment came almost a full day before Trump’s veto threat. It is more likely his motivation for shocking the political system came from his friends, whom he spends hours calling, and cable news. On the latter, Pete Hegseth, a former military officer Trump considered to head the Department of Veterans Affairs, appeared on the president’s preferred morning news show, “Fox & Friends,” to slam the omnibus.

Hegseth called it a “swamp budget.” Trump campaigned, in part, on a promise to “drain the swamp.” He also labeled the bill a “Mitch McConnell special,” and criticized it because it contained “no wall” funding.

White House aides clearly were caught off guard. A group was huddled in Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ office for an ample amount of time. Other aides sharply told a reporter they had no information about what might happen Friday.

The mercurial president’s flip-flopping showed how his administration can lack a consistent message or policy stance. It also again highlighted how he often undermines his top aides.

On Thursday, Trump’s budget director, Mick Mulvaney, guaranteed he would sign the massive spending measure. “Will the president sign the bill? Yes,” the director of the Office of Management and Budget, which drafts and distributes Statements of Administration Policy, said at the start of a hastily arranged news conference.

Mulvaney and Trump’s legislative affairs director, Marc Short, explained how White House officials never expected to get all their demands since Democratic votes were needed to get the spending bill to Trump’s desk.

But they never said the president understood or agreed with that.

Trump put pen to paper on the massive bill, which funds the government through Sept. 30, just hours before jetting off to his south Florida resort for the weekend.

Wins and losses

As Republican and Democratic leaders neared a final deal on the omnibus contents on Wednesday, Trump appeared to object to some of its immigration provisions.

Most notably, he wanted more funding for his proposed U.S.-Mexico border wall. The $1.6 billion amount negotiators, including his own congressional affairs team, had agreed to did not garner his approval immediately.

Senior administration officials on Thursday slammed Democrats for rejecting several proposals they contend Trump made during omnibus talks to extend the DACA program that shields 690,000 people from deportation. Muvlaney even claimed Democrats rejected an offer they initially made that Trump later put back on the table after rejecting it: three years of wall funding for a three-year DACA extension.

“What is clear now is the Democrats do not want a solution to this,” said Marc Short, Trump’s chief legislative liaison, contending Democrats are using those who get DACA protection as a collective “political weapon.”

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Democrats like Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin of Illinois responded to those charges by saying the president created the DACA crisis in the first place when he set it on a path for termination. That state’s other Democratic senator, Tammy Duckworth, said it was Trump who “refused to accept a deal that would solve the manufactured crisis he created.” (The program is still operational, pending an ongoing court battle.)

“We got 110 miles, we need 10 times that,” Mulvaney said of the amount of barrier the massive spending bill would pay for. “Congress will not give us that without a DACA fix, immigration reform.”

He also did not get funding for the additional beds for detained undocumented immigrants he wanted, nor all the additional funding for more ICE and Customs and Border Patrol Agents he pushed for.

Trump’s aides did contend they got more funding for the border barrier, Customs and Border Patrol, and border-related technologies than they had asked for.

Trump also lost on the Gateway Tunnel transit project, which would connect his native New York City with neighboring New Jersey. He has long opposed the project, and using federal funds to help pay for it. A senior White House official said last week he remains opposed. While the omnibus would make the Gateway project compete with other programs for federal monies, the president was unable to totally block federal funding sources.

New Jersey Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez on Thursday said the project would go on, and coyly hinted that it would get federal funding even with the omnibus provision now codified in law.