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White House challenges predictions of political hit if shutdown slows economy

Trump aides, Democrats both view floating new proposal as friendly fire

President Donald Trump, flanked by Senate Republican leaders, speaks in the Capitol on Jan. 9. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
President Donald Trump, flanked by Senate Republican leaders, speaks in the Capitol on Jan. 9. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Senior White House officials say they are unconcerned about a downgraded internal assessment of the partial government shutdown as a drag on the U.S. economy or polls that show most Americans mostly blame President Donald Trump for the impasse.

Instead, the president’s top aides on Wednesday said they are focused on the “long-term” health of the economy, which has shown signs of slowing in recent months as some economists warn that clouds of recession could be forming.

What’s more, the White House is continuing with a public relations push aimed at flipping a script written last week when the president abruptly walked out of a meeting with top congressional Democrats after they again refused his demands for $5.7 billion for a southern border barrier.

Trump met Wednesday morning with members of the bipartisan House Problem Solvers Caucus in the White House Situation Room as he and his aides try to explore whether they can cobble together enough votes to pass a shutdown-ending bill that includes funding for his proposed wall. The session marked the second time in as many days the White House attempted to court moderate and deal-minded House Democrats.

If some opt against showing up to such meetings — as several Blue Dog Democrats did Tuesday — it allows the White House to tee off on them as unwilling to even return to the negotiating table.

[Pelosi asks Trump to delay State of The Union until government reopens]

“He doesn’t want the government to be closed, but the only ones who can make that change are Democrats that, so far, have been unwilling to do anything,” a senior White House official said Wednesday.

Also watch: Federal worker — ‘Sometimes this is the only meal someone will get’

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Economic concerns

Those comments and Trump’s efforts to garner the support of some Problem Solver Democrats came a day after his own economic team updated an analysis of how the partial shutdown — and its 800,000 furloughed and unpaid federal workers — is hurting the economy.

The White House initially forecast a 0.1 percentage point hit to growth every two weeks that a quarter of the federal apparatus remains shuttered. Reports surfaced Tuesday, however, citing administration officials saying that has been updated to show a 0.1 percentage-point dip every week.

A senior White House official downplayed that new estimate on Wednesday as their boss met with the Problem Solvers and a bipartisan group of senators talked about a way out of the border wall standoff — but none emerged for the 26th consecutive day.

“No,” a senior White House official said when asked if the economic assessment alters the president’s shutdown plans. “We’re also focused on the long-term economic goals and the long-term economic strength that we have, based on the tax cuts, based on deregulation, and other things that the president has done.

“Look, you know there’s going to be some temporary impact. But, at the same time, the president is focused on safety and security of the country. … The fundamentals of the economy are still incredibly strong,” the senior official said.

That last line echoed an infamous gaffe by Sen. John McCain, when he was running for president in 2008. “The fundamentals of the economy are still incredibly strong,” the Arizona Republican said on Sept. 15, 2008, as the economy was imploding en route to the Great Recession. McCain went on to lose handily to Sen. Barack Obama

Marc Hetherington, a University of North Carolina political science professor, said the president’s fixation on winning each micro-news cycle could complicate a long-term approach.

“Even if administration officials want to take a long view, they are stuck with a president who cares deeply about the short term,” he said. “Moreover, the Republican deficit in support on the shutdown is so large at present that it would take a long time for enough people to move to thinking it’s the Democrats fault.”

While Democratic members are fearful of being used as pawns in White House meetings like Wednesday’s gathering with the Problem Solvers, Trump’s strategy is to do just that by turning public opinion over the partial shutdown in his favor as multiple polls show a majority of Americans blame him — and to a lesser degree Republican lawmakers. (Around 25 percent to 30 percent blame Democrats in various polls.)

But G. William Hoagland, who was a top aide to former Senate GOP leader Bill Frist, described the White House officials as “dreaming.”

“It will only get worse for the White House, and no amount of spin is going to reverse the poll numbers the longer this goes on. How they are tying this to long-term economic [message] baffles me,” said Hoagland, now with the Bipartisan Policy Center. “If anything, the longer this goes on the worse the long-term economic outlook,” the veteran budget guru said. 

Blame game

To that end, White House officials are also pushing back on the numerous polls showing majorities of Americans place most of the blame on Trump for the partial government shutdown.

“I think it would be on them to come back to us, since we’ve put a proposal out,” the senior official contended. Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer rejected the White House’s pre-Christmas proposal of $2.5 billion for a border barrier and $400 million for other border security tools — the former since upped to $5.7 billion. When asked why the White House has not made a new offer, the official put the onus on Democrats.

“That’s the worst negotiating. Why keep making an offer against yourself?” the official said. “We’ve made multiple moves.”

[Frustrated by ‘my generals,’ Trump turns to ‘my actings’]

One Democratic source countered that bills the Democrat-controlled House has passed since Jan. 3 would easily pass the Senate. Like the White House senior official, this source described a new proposal as Democrats essentially negotiating against themselves.

Democratic leaders and rank-and-file members continue to insist the president agree to reopen the shuttered federal agencies, saying they then would return to the negotiating table over the border barrier.

“There is … strong agreement that if we reopen the government, the possibility exists to work together and find common ground to tackle some of our country’s toughest problems and fix them. But that conversation can only begin in earnest once the government is reopened,” the seven Problem Solvers Democrats who met with Trump on Wednesday said in a statement.

But, as always, Trump and his aides’ strategy is mostly geared toward his conservative base, who he needs to turn out in big numbers in 2020 to win a second term. When conservative opinion-shapers, including Ann Coulter, began criticizing the president’s pre-shutdown signals that he would sign a stopgap spending measure devoid of wall funding, he nixed it.

Coulter delivered an even darker message to the Republican president in a recent interview as the shutdown heads into its 27th day Thursday.

“It is self-preservation because he is dead in the water if he does not build that wall,” she told HBO’s “Vice News Tonight,” adding this assessment of his political future: “Dead. Dead. Dead.”

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