The current budget dispute has its roots in a mammoth spending bill President Donald Trump grudgingly signed in March, which did not fund his border wall. | Mark Wilson/Getty Images
The president has been under fire from his usual allies on several issues
President Donald Trump reversed himself on budget negotiations with Congress on Thursday after pressure from his conservative base approached unsustainable levels, rattling a president who has come under fire over multiple issues this week.
As he obsessively monitored mounting criticism from the right that cast him as an inept negotiator who is being rolled by Congressional Democrats, Trump came to second-guess his earlier decision to sign a bill that would keep the government funded through Feb. 8. He has alternately seethed and panicked about the stream of invective he’s hearing from allies on television, lashing out at aides and flailing for a solution, according to three people close to the president, and even doing personal damage control to assuage an angry Rush Limbaugh. Story Continued Below
“The president is ginning for a fight — he wants to fight, he needs to fight,” said one person close to Trump shortly after the president told House leaders that, in a dramatic change of position, he would not sign a stopgap bill passed by the Senate last night.
“This is a political issue where there’s a line in the sand,” the person added, noting that “Build the Wall!” was a signature Trump 2016 campaign chant that is hard for his base to forget.
In recent days Trump has endured some of the harshest commentary of his presidency from typically staunch allies, who say that he is capitulating to Democratic opposition. The conservative commentator Ann Coulter said on Wednesday that Trump will have had a “joke presidency” if he doesn’t build his long-promised border wall. Filling in for Fox News’ Sean Hannity that night, the conservative commentator Dan Bongino said of the Trump base: “They want their wall and they want it now.” Mark Meadows, the Trump ally who chairs the House Freedom Caucus and was a lead candidate for White House chief of staff, said Wednesday morning that the short-term funding bill the president is considering would be a “Christmas present” to his Democratic opponents. Meadows and his fellow House conservatives are revolting against any spending bill that does not include billions of dollars for a border wall.
“Lobbying via cable news works,” said a former senior White House official. “He was all set to sign before last night’s barrage from House conservatives.”
Compounding the president’s headaches is anger from within his party over Trump’s abrupt announcement of a U.S. troop withdrawal from Syria and his support for a criminal justice reform bill passed by the Senate this week. For good measure, the stock market — which Trump monitors closely — continued its steady decline Thursday deeper into negative territory for the year, a move some market analysts attributed to uncertainty over the budget talks.
Trump hardened his position Thursday after earlier signaling that he would accept a deal that does not include the $5 billion in border spending he had personally demanded just a week ago. Senate Democrats, who adamantly oppose funding a wall, can use their filibuster power to block any budget action.
The shift came as conservatives are roiled over multiple issues — including the criminal justice reform bill’s Senate passage, which law-and-order Republicans have assailed as a “jail break” for violent offenders. GOP Senators and conservative commentators have also piled on Trump for his plan to pull U.S. troops from Syria, which critics called a concession to Russia and Iran. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who generally defends Trump, called it an “Obama-like decision” — a grave insult to a president who often defines himself against his predecessor.
The maelstrom of criticism has sent the president into a tailspin a day and a half before a fourth of the government is set to shut down, second-guessing a slate of recent decisions and searching frantically for solutions.
“When I begrudgingly signed the Omnibus Bill, I was promised the Wall and Border Security by leadership. Would be done by end of year (NOW). It didn’t happen!” Trump tweeted Thursday morning, in a signal of the firmer stance he would later adopt. Graham had also urged Trump to stand strong on the border wall. “I thought he had a good position. You shouldn’t take these things on if you’re not going to see it through. I thought $5 billion was a reasonable amount given the caravan. I respect their decision to try and avoid a government shutdown, but I think long-term this hurts,” Graham said of the wall. As for the Syria decision, Graham was even more firm in a letter to Trump along with other senators in both parties: “Reconsider your proposal.”
On Thursday morning, the talk radio host Rush Limbaugh complained that Trump had backed criminal justice reform even as he prepared to cave on wall funding.
“How in the hell does this get passed with no controversy, no opposition, no problem? I mean, Washington came together to pass this thing in like 10 minutes,” Limbaugh said of the criminal justice bill on Wednesday. “Meanwhile, $5 billion, a measly $5 billion — when compared to the size of the federal budget for border security — is an impossibility. Somebody needs to explain to me how this happened.”
By Thursday afternoon, Limbaugh announced that Trump had sent him a message assuring him he would stand firm.
“The president has gotten word to me that he is either getting funding for the border or he’s shutting the whole thing down,” Limbuagh said, according to multiple reports.
Trump set the tone in a televised Oval Office meeting with his Democratic opponents last week, in which he demanded the $5 billion and said he would be “proud” to take responsibility for a government shutdown forced by his border-security spending demands. Many Republicans cringed at the performance, deeming it more emotional outburst than tactical move.
“Rarely do you put all your chips in the middle of the table. The president speaks out of frustration often, but that doesn’t tell you where he’s going to end up. But it certainly tells us where his intent, impulse and instinct is,” said Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), who backs a bill providing $25 billion in border wall funding.
Since then, Trump has been torn between immigration hawks urging him to stand strong, like Meadows and presidential adviser Stephen Miller, and more conciliatory members of his legislative affairs team, who have pushed for compromise.
The White House dispatched Miller to last Sunday’s talk shows, where he repeated Trump’s maximal demands. Two days later, White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders said he might scrounge and redirect spare billions for the wall from across departments and agencies — an idea critics said would be illegal and which had White House lawyers studying the issue.As the president backed down on his insistence for $5 billion for the border wall this week, Republican leaders responded to his lessening demands. Senate Majority Leader McConnell (R-Ky.) offered Democrats a bill delivering $1.6 billion in fencing and an additional $1 billion for border security. But that too was rejected by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.). By the end of the week Trump was talking about the wall having “slats” rather than a concrete barrier, a line echoed by his staff on TV.
But hard-core conservatives in Congress were in no mood for a climb down.
“You’ve got a bunch of House Republicans who have a foot out the door like [outgoing House Speaker] Paul Ryan, whereas the House Freedom Caucus willing to fight with adverse consequences because they’re in the minority anyway and don’t feel the responsibility to govern,” said the source close to Trump.
The current budget dispute has its roots in a mammoth spending bill Trump grudgingly signed in March, which did not fund his border wall. The president fumed afterwards as conservatives, including Trump pal Sean Hannity, panned him for signing it. In September, GOP leaders asked him to back down again and kick the wall fight until after the November election, vowing to battle with Democrats for his priorities.
But by the time the shutdown fight came, House Republicans couldn’t muster the votes to even send a border wall bill to the Senate and there appeared no other option but to concede the fight to entrenched Democratic opposition.
“The border wall will not make America more secure. It’s possible that his own advisers have made that clear to the president. And he has decided this is not a fight worth having in this moment,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).
There’s little reason to think that Trump’s hand will grow stronger over time — especially with Democrats poised to assume their majority status in the House next month.
“The President has no leverage,” the Fox News host Brian Kilmeade told White House counselor Kellyanne Conway on “Fox & Friends” yesterday.
Conway argued that Democrats have mischaracterized the budget debate, short handing Trump’s position as being all about a physical wall when his demands include numerous other border security measures.
“First of all, let’s not all acquiesce to the ridiculous soundbite that this is about a wall. They’re trying to make a wall a four-letter word when the president has been talking about border security all along,” Conway said.
Democrats say it doesn’t matter how the White House spins it: No wall money will be allocated.
“We are resolutely against the border wall. I don’t see any way we could get it,” Schumer said in an interview. “All this talk about reprogramming? He needs Congress to go along and we won’t.”
Trump also happens to love suspense, leading some to believe that he is simply creating drama while still planning to sign a short-term spending bill without wall funding. He’s scheduled to go to Mar-a-Lago this weekend, and past GOP leaders are warning him that a partial government shutdown over the holidays won’t improve his position, either.
“Shutting down on Christmas is not clever,” said Newt Gingrich, the former House Speaker who oversaw a six-week government shutdown from November 1995 to January 1996. “I think they can go into the new year and continue to fight. I’m not so sure from his standpoint that if he ended up with five or six more two-week deals that he’d care.”
Daniel Lippman contributed to this report.
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