The shutdown drama taught White House aides a lesson: When it comes to President Donald Trump, sometimes less is more.
For about 48 hours this weekend, Trump kept an unusually low profile, making no public appearances and keeping his direct contact with lawmakers — especially Democrats — to a minimum. Instead, the president left the heavy lifting to his staff, temporarily suppressing his instinct to invite lawmakers to the White House to strike a grand bargain.
The hands-off strategy emerged after Trump met with top White House aides on Friday night. Frustrated with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, who had been invited in for what wound up being an unproductive meeting earlier in the day, Trump and his team decided to call Democrats’ bluff, issuing a statement at 11:58 p.m. declaring that the president “will not negotiate the status of unlawful immigrants while Democrats hold our lawful citizens hostage over their reckless demands.” House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell followed suit with similar statements.
For the rest of the weekend, Senate Democrats barely heard a word from Trump’s team, leaving them hanging while government agencies closed their doors.
In the end, the stand-back-and-watch approach paid off, putting pressure on Senate leaders to reach an agreement to open the government on their own — and delivering Trump a much-needed victory, according to half a dozen White House officials and advisers.
The approach represented a sharp departure from recent months, when Trump’s off-script and sometimes contradictory comments during meetings with lawmakers of both parties — from an hourlong televised meeting with congressional leaders in which the president seemed open to abandoning his own policy positions to his closed-door comments about not welcoming immigrants from “shithole” countries — sent immigration negotiations careening off track.
But White House officials were careful to avoid the perception that they were taking a victory lap too soon. Instead of sending Trump out to the Rose Garden to gloat, like he did after House Republicans passed a bill to repeal Obamacare, aides made a strategic decision to have press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders read a 71-word statement declaring that he’s “pleased that Democrats in Congress have come to their senses.” Trump took a similarly staid approach to signing the bill reopening the government, with the press office sending out a photograph of him alone at a table in the Treaty Room.
Republicans and Democrats in Congress still have to find a compromise in the next three weeks on immigration to boost border security and protect hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants who entered the country as minors — and there are already signs the president, who prides himself on his deal-making ability, is eager to reinsert himself in the middle of the negotiations.
One close White House adviser predicted this victory, coupled with the passage of the historic tax bill and the healthy state of the economy, would only embolden Trump to return to his habit of getting directly involved in trying to orchestrate events.
“It’s a foregone conclusion he’s going to escape,” another White House adviser said Monday. “He’s like Houdini. If you keep him in a cage, he’s going to get out.”
Sure enough, Trump posted a celebratory tweet Tuesday morning that sideswiped CNN reporter Jim Acosta, a favorite White House target: “Even Crazy Jim Acosta of Fake News CNN agrees: ‘Trump World and WH sources dancing in end zone: Trump wins again…Schumer and Dems caved…gambled and lost.’ Thank you for your honesty Jim!”
After the Senate voted to move ahead with ending the shutdown Monday, Trump immediately hosted several Republican senators at the White House, including Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas and immigration hard-liner Tom Cotton of Arkansas, to discuss what could pass in the Senate. He also met with two Democratic senators, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Doug Jones of Alabama, breaking his brief silent treatment.
White House aides said the president remained engaged throughout the weekend, even if he wasn’t in the Capitol negotiating an end to the shutdown. The president stayed in touch via phone with key Republican lawmakers, including Cornyn, McConnell, Ryan and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy.
But the president, who made a show earlier this month of hosting senators from both parties at the White House, made a decision not to speak with Democrats once the shutdown started, forgoing further efforts at bipartisan dealmaking.
“Since our meeting in the Oval Office on Friday, the president and I have not spoken, and the White House refused to engage in negotiations over the weekend,” Schumer said Monday. “The great dealmaking president sat on the sidelines.”
Asked on Monday about the decision to cut Schumer and the Democrats out, Sanders said, “Look, what the president did clearly worked.”
Trump, for his part, spent the weekend calling friends and allies for advice on how to handle the shutdown, the first in his tenure as president, and ask how it was playing in the media.
Worried about polling that showed a large portion of the public blamed Trump and the Republicans for the shutdown, aides mobilized on Friday to shift the blame to Democrats and ensure that the president didn’t become the de facto face of the crisis.
For a White House that rarely stays on message, sticking to the same simple talking points and coordinating with congressional Republicans was seen as something of a triumph among West Wing aides and outside advisers, who have long complained about a lack of cohesive messaging.
A senior House aide said the White House learned the importance of message discipline during the tax reform debate, the White House’s only major legislative success so far.
The White House kept Trump out of the spotlight almost entirely through the weekend — a feat for a publicity-hungry president — and canceled a public event on school choice at the White House on Monday before it was clear the shutdown would end. Instead, Trump’s only public commentary came through a handful of relatively anodyne tweets that stayed on message and avoided the name-calling — “cryin’ Chuck Schumer” or “Dicky Durbin” — that has been a staple of his social media outbursts.
Instead of the president, White House legislative director Marc Short and Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney became the administration’s public face of the White House response, so much so that aides took to calling their weekend performances in front of the camera the “Mick and Marc Show.”
“There is nothing in this bill Democrats say they object to; yet it’s like a two-year-old temper tantrum to say, ‘I’m going to take my toys and go home because I’m upset about something else,” Short said Saturday. “It has nothing to do with this bill. And Senate Democrats are basically conducting a two-year-old temper tantrum in front of all of the American people.”
Trump, who obsessively watches and grades his aides’ appearances on television, was pleased with Short and Mulvaney, and he praised them on Saturday in Sanders’ office, urging his team to “hold the line,” according to a White House official.
Behind the scenes, Short, Mulvaney, and chief of staff John Kelly represented the White House on Capitol Hill, with Kelly focused on talks with congressional leadership and Short and Mulvaney on wooing rank-and-file members to a deal.
Trump’s aides spent the weekend making the case to the president that the shutdown is the Democrats’ problem — and emphasizing that it was Senate leaders’ job, not his, to fix it.
“They told him, ‘The more you’re involved, the harder it’s going to be to work to negotiate the solution,” according to an outside adviser close to Trump. “And they told him that the longer the government stays closed, the more likely he is to get blamed.”
From the beginning, top administration officials said, they believed that Democrats would move quickly to reopen the government “once they made their point,” in the words of a White House aide — though the White House delayed the departure of Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to Switzerland for the Davos conference until the Senate came to an agreement, and even weighed canceling the trip.
The politics of the shutdown became much starker on Monday, when thousands of federal employees were instructed not to come to the office and when the Democrats insistence to negotiate on immigration as part of a spending bill fell on deaf ears at the White House.
“I’ll be honest with you, in my entire career in politics, I have never seen Democrats voluntarily walk themselves into a situation this bad,” said Josh Holmes, McConnell’s former chief of staff. “The only thing Republicans have to say is, ‘Where are your priorities? Are they with American troops and sick poor kids or illegal immigrants?”
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