The Memo: Concern over shutdown grows in Trump World

January 19, 2019

Niall Stanage

Allies of President Trump are growing increasingly concerned about the political impact of the partial government shutdown, which has now entered its fifth week.

Trump evinces confidence that he will prevail in the battle to secure funding for the southern border wall he promised at almost every opportunity during his 2016 campaign.

But even some veterans of his own White House aren’t sure he fully grasps the odds he faces.

“The president jumped without looking first,” said one former White House official. “And can you imagine the humiliation the president would bring on himself if he caved and got little or nothing in return?”

Trump could yet reframe the whole debate when he makes a new statement on the crisis, scheduled for 4 p.m. Saturday. So far, he has held fast to his insistence that he wants $5.7 billion in funding for a border well. Democrats have been adamant that they will not give it to him. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has called the concept of a border wall an “immorality.”

The dispute took on a more personal — and petty — tone in recent days.

Pelosi made a power play by writing to Trump suggesting he postpone — or deliver in writing — his State of the Union address, currently scheduled for Jan. 29.

Trump hit back on Thursday, revoking permission at the last minute for Pelosi and other Democratic lawmakers to use military planes for a scheduled trip to Belgium and Afghanistan. Trump suggested the Speaker and her party colleagues could use commercial planes to travel overseas if they wished.

The acrimony only increased on Friday, as Pelosi canceled the trip outright, with her aides accusing the White House of having fueled security concerns by leaking the details of the trip.

The growing enmity lowers the chances of progress in Congress even further. Both sides agree that there is no real path forward as of now, unless Trump unexpectedly creates one on Saturday.

But with 800,000 federal workers affected by the partial shutdown — and knock-on effects growing sharper all the time — the political fallout could be severe.

Some people aligned with Trump never believed there was any real hope of getting congressional funding for the border wall. But they are also emphatic that the president cannot let down his base on such a signature issue. A declaration of a national emergency remains the best way forward for Trump, they say.

“I just don’t think he has any alternative except to declare a national emergency,” Stephen Bannon, the president’s former chief strategist, told The Hill. “The Democrats have no intention, ever, of giving him a penny for the wall.”

Bannon also argued that the wall was vital for Trump’s chances of winning reelection in 2020.

“If you do not have a wall fully under construction, you are not going to get a second term,” Bannon warned.

Such views are in line with conservative media commentators who were outraged last month when Trump appeared poised to sign a government spending bill that included no funds for the wall.

After a chorus of criticism from figures such as Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter and Michelle Malkin, Trump has never again veered off his demand for substantial wall funding.

Former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) wrote an opinion article for Fox News’s website last week in which he asserted “President Donald Trump has to win on the border security issue. He has no choice.”

“Never seen the Republican Party so unified. No 'Cave' on the issue of Border and National Security,” Trump tweeted on Friday morning. “A beautiful thing to see, especially when you hear the new rhetoric spewing from the mouths of the Democrats who talk Open Border, High Taxes and Crime. Stop Criminals & Drugs now!”

But the president’s assertion of GOP unity is hard to maintain. At least three Republican senators — Susan Collins (Maine), Lisa Murkowski(Alaska) and Cory Gardner (Colo.) — have called for the government to be reopened. A handful of others have expressed milder misgivings.

There are also divisions around Trump. Some hard-line figures, reportedly including immigration hawk Stephen Miller, still favor the declaration of national emergency. But other powerful players, including Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, are much less eager. Trump himself seemed to have moved away from the idea in recent days — though he remains as unpredictable as ever.

Those who are opposed to a national emergency declaration believe such a move would get tied up in the courts for some time. Some conservatives are also concerned about setting a precedent, whereby a future Democratic president could, for example, declare a national emergency around the issue of gun crime and enact measures aimed at restricting gun ownership.

But one source in Trump’s orbit argued that the legal problems may be overstated, especially now that the Supreme Court has an in-built conservative majority following the confirmations of Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh during Trump’s first two years in office.

“The Supreme Court is in our favor right now,” this source said. “You press it while you can.”

Opinion polls throughout the crisis have made uncomfortable reading for the president and his allies. Five major opinion polls have been released on the shutdown since the start of the year — from the Pew Research Center; PBS News Hour; Quinnipiac University; CNN; and ABC News and the Washington Post. In all five, blame for the shutdown has been assigned primarily to Trump and the GOP by voters.

Results like that ensure that the pressure on Democrats to make concessions to Trump is negligible.

But even some Republicans who are prone to criticize Trump don’t necessarily believe he is about to back down, either.

“There is going to have to be some kind of compromise as this shutdown is felt more broadly outside of Washington, D.C.,” said Doug Heye, a former communications director of the Republican National Committee. “But the idea that Trump is going to cave ‘just because’? I don’t think that holds a lot of merit.”

Even if that is true, it is not assuaging the concerns of some in Trump World that the president has committed himself to a battle that will be enormously difficult to win.

“He’s hurting himself with swing voters now to avoid hurting himself with his base,” the former White House official lamented. “He’s boxed in and doesn’t really have anywhere to go and Democrats know it.”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.