For President Donald Trump, now what?
That’s the question Trump and his White House team spent Monday wrestling with after one of the most potentially damaging days of his presidency. The West Wing collectively tried to move forward after the president abruptly bowed to pressure Friday by pausing a government shutdown without securing a penny for his proposed southern border wall — just hours after Roger Stone, one of his first political advisers, was slapped with federal charges by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III.
Senior White House officials contended Monday that Trump has created an environment for new talks after Democrats refused to negotiate over the wall while the government was shut down. Some GOP insiders called for him to strike a deal as other experts predicted the backlash from Republican lawmakers over another economy-slowing impasse could drive him to do just that.
White House officials also took umbrage with a Congressional Budget Office assessment that the partial government shutdown triggered by the wall fight was a drag on the economy. In a new report, the CBO concluded that a quarter of the federal government being closed for 35 days cost the U.S. economy $11 billion, $3 billion of which will never be recovered — not even when previously fur800,000 federal workers who had been furloughed receive the two paychecks they missed in January.
“No, I won’t acknowledge any of that right now,” White House National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow said Monday during the first press briefing of the year in the James A. Brady briefing room. “It’s awfully hard to make even the best guesstimates of those kinds of small fractions of numbers,” he added, citing “fundamental differences” with the CBO and its methods of measuring the economy.
Also watch: Trump warns of another shutdown if Congress doesn’t reach a new deal by Feb. 15
Trump announced the partial government shutdown would end as images of Stone being taken from his Florida home early Friday morning and later striking a Richard Nixon-like “victory” pose outside a federal courthouse played on a loop on cable news. For much of the time from late Friday morning and into the early afternoon, several networks were also showing air traffic at several major U.S. airports frozen due to a lack of air traffic control staff — another shutdown casualty.
Among the questions reporters shouted Friday as he left the Rose Garden was “Why did you cave?” But what Trump did was less of a cave and more of his go-to move since he entered the political fray in 2015: A Donald Rumsfeld-like “strategic pause,” a term the former Defense secretary coined to dispel the notion that President George W. Bush had ordered a temporary retreat in the Iraq War.
White House strategic communications director Mercedes Schlapp told reporters Monday, “I do think that the president has perfectly set the table for these negotiations to happen — or we’ll find other ways to fund the border.”
The latter was a threat — delivered with more of a velvet-glove approach than used by her boss — that Trump might opt to access Pentagon dollars for his border barrier by declaring a national emergency, if he concludes there’s no deal to be had over the next three weeks with congressional Democrats.
Schlapp’s comments were part of a broader strategy to try to put the onus on Democrats to make good on their promise to seriously negotiate a deal with Trump if he would agree to reopen the government.
“This is an opportunity for Congress to act. … I think we brought the ball forward at this moment,” she said. “I think the mere fact that we have these conferees coming together on Wednesday and seriously looking at resources and seriously having a discussion about border security and wanting to find a solution and a legislative fix is a step in the right direction.”
Under the shutdown pause agreement Trump and congressional leaders reached Friday, a group of House and Senate lawmakers from each party will begin meeting behind closed doors later this week. As those talks get started, however, another Trump aide indicated — though in shaky language — that his boss is still insisting on $5.7 billion for a border structure.
“I think the president wants his $5.7 billion,” acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney told Fox News on Sunday. “Keep in mind, why is that [his] number? It’s not a number that’s made up. It’s what the experts have told him.”
Toward a reset
Schlapp and Mulvaney were adamant that Trump is looking at two options: Another shutdown to pressure Democrats to give in on his border wall demands; or a national emergency that would trigger immediate legal challenges. But some GOP insiders want the president to give at least some ground, strike a deal with Democrats, and put the last month — with its declining poll numbers and revived talk of a 2020 Republican primary challenger — behind him.
“I hope — hope — that the failure of the president’s strategy on the shutdown will lead to a serious reassessment and reset, and the result will be a willingness to make a bipartisan deal that couples increased border security with protection for the ‘Dreamers’ and other immigration reforms,” said Michael Steel, who was a senior adviser to former Speaker John A. Boehner and for Jeb Bush’s 2016 White House bid.
“Just like only Nixon could go to China,” he said, “only Trump has the credibility with the Republican base to get such a deal done.”
Elaine Kamarck, a former Clinton White House official now with the Brookings Institution, doubts the president will again close the government — especially as more and more Republican senators begin to express their frustration.
“This White House does not have a lock on Republican senators,” she said. “There were around six who said it publicly. But, believe me, there were others waiting in the wings. That is a lesson that has to have set in.”
What’s most likely, Kamarck said, is Trump and White House officials “will get as much as they can for the wall — something more than the $1.6 billion in the initial Senate bill and try to move on.”
It’s on Democrats
White House aides are also trying to paint Trump as having met one of Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s demands: That he agree to open the shuttered agencies before she and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer would revive the previously stalled negotiations.
One Washington observer described Pelosi as having taught her fellow Democrats a lesson when the Californian refused to give in to the president during the 35-day shutdown. (She is, however, going to allow Trump to enter the House chamber on Feb. 5 to deliver his second official State of the Union address — just 10 days before funding for nine Cabinet-level agencies is set to again expire.)
“The Democrats are smart to argue that it is never a good idea to negotiate with hostage takers because it encourages them to do it again,” University of North Carolina political science professor Marc Hetherington said. “I suspect that allusion resonates with Americans.”
But even as his aides were busily trying to put the onus on lawmakers — especially Democrats — the president once again drifted off message.
“I personally think it’s less than 50-50,” he told The Wall Street Journal on Sunday of his best guess at the odds of a deal. “But you have a lot of very good people on that board,” he said of the conference committee.
There was one light moment at the executive mansion Monday: Kudlow repeated his prediction of 3 percent growth in the next government assessment of the U.S. economy while standing at the briefing room podium. Then, out of the blue, using sports gambling vernacular, he said those who “took the over” on the economy’s performance will be big winners.
He then smiled in the direction of two senior press aides seated nearby.