Little of the congressional drama that precipitated the weekend’s government shutdown made its way to the White House Saturday.
Previous presidents have projected an air of crisis during shutdowns, but President Donald Trump stayed out of the public eye, sticking to his preferred mode of communication—Twitter—while expressing annoyance to aides that the disruption is keeping him away from an evening bash at Mar-a-Lago celebrating the one-year anniversary of his inauguration.
White House aides, too, say they are relatively relaxed. Mick Mulvaney, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, told Fox News host Sean Hannity on Friday that he discovered Friday that it fell to him to shut down the government – “which is kind of cool.”
Welcome to the whatever shutdown.
The attitude permeating the Trump administration reflect, to some degree, the confidence that comes from finding that the world keeps spinning every time they do something they’ve been warned would have dire consequences, like withdrawing from the Paris climate accords or announcing plans to move the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.
According to a half-dozen White House officials and outside advisers, Trump is viewing the shutdown through a similar lens, a view encouraged by White House aides, including senior adviser Stephen Miller and congressional liaison Marc Short, who urged him on Friday not to give in to Democratic demands, particularly on immigration.
Several presidential advisers expressed confidence that Democrats, who offered no philosophical objections to the 30-day continuing resolution approved by House Republicans, wanted to make a statement but don’t want to hurt federal workers, tens of thousands of whom will be staying home from work without pay if government funding isn’t restored by Monday morning.
Two presidential aides said they expect the current crisis to be resolved by the end of the weekend.
But Democrats themselves are sending a different message, at least publicly – giving no indication they are ready to buckle to pressure. “It’s important,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) said of the shutdown’s impact on federal workers. “But I was just at the women’s march this morning and there are a lot of federal workers there and…they were basically: ‘You need to stand up to this guy.’”
One House Democrat said he was relieved his party had finally “grown a spine.”
The White House has responded by shrugging it off, hewing to a consistent message: This shutdown won’t hurt as much as the one President Barack Obama oversaw five years ago.
Mulvaney drew the comparison repeatedly on Saturday, telling reporters that national parks and monuments would remain open, though they were closed in 2013; that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would continue to protect Americans for this year’s flu outbreak; and that, in another departure from five years ago, the activities of the Environmental Protection Agency would continue uninterrupted.
He also argued that Democrats today are being more unreasonable than were Republicans in 2013. “We were asked to vote for something in 2013 that we did not approve of,” said Mulvaney, who, as a South Carolina congressman, supported the 2013 shutdown because the government-funding bill required lawmakers to approve funding for Obamacare, a federal program to which they vehemently objected.
Other West Wing aides were playing it cool as well.
“This seems so banal compared to 2013, when the two sides were actually fired up and there was a cause,” said a senior presidential aide. The 2013 shutdown, precipitated by Republican attempts to prevent funds from flowing to the Affordable Care Act, lasted 17 days. “Everybody figures this is going to resolve itself by the end of the weekend,” the aide said.
“It will be nothing compared to Obama’s shutdown,” said another senior White House official, though the 2013 shutdown was roundly blamed on Republicans.
Trump himself, who has yet to appear in public since the shutdown early Saturday morning, is sticking with the message that Democrats will take most of the heat, though he privately joked to staff that he knows he’ll get blamed—because he always does.
Though he hasn’t appeared before the cameras, he was active on Twitter throughout the day on Saturday, writing: “This is the One Year Anniversary of my Presidency and the Democrats wanted to give me a nice present. #DemocratShutdown.”
In photos released late Saturday by the White House, Trump and top staff appeared relaxed and smiling.
White House aides said that they think Trump’s Twitter microphone is enough, and they don’t believe the president needs to make official remarks to bring the shutdown to a close.
Indeed, Trump’s own erratic behavior in negotiations last week—including his remarks to lawmakers that many immigrants come from “shithole” countries—helped precipitate the breakdown in spending talks on the Hill by hardening the positions among party rank-and-file on both sides and giving Democrats a ready-made excuse to walk away from the negotiating table on immigration.
Since then, he’s been a bit player in the shutdown drama – the absence of his direction and leadership driving events more than its presence.
The irony is that while many had high hopes that Trump’s election augured a new era of bipartisanship in the country, the government shutdown is the clearest evidence yet that hasn’t materialized.
Instead, a year into his first term, the president – who won the election railing against the political system – finds himself trapped inside it, waiting for the political leaders he holds in contempt to set him free.
Annie Karni and Seung Min Kim contributed to reporting.
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