President Donald Trump was supposedly girding for battle. Not even a week ago, ahead of a possible government shutdown, his aides said the president would insist on funding his border wall and the president himself was prepared to sabotage Obamacare to gain leverage.
But after several days of chest-beating from his administration, Trump backed away from both positions in short order, ending the game of chicken before it began. Democrats were not forced to take a single tough vote and suffered no defections from their ranks. The president deferred his fight for wall funding until the fall and grudgingly agreed to continue funding Obamacare subsidies.
The episode has left Democratic leaders with the impression that Trump may never go full bore to get his wall funding, no matter his administration’s future threats. Indeed, Democrats believe that Trump himself is coming to the realization that he won’t get Congress to pay for the wall.
Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said he spoke to Trump several times during the monthlong funding saga, but Trump never brought up his public demands that Schumer give the president a down payment on the wall as a condition of funding the government.
“He’s called me a few times during this. But he never brought it up,” Schumer said in an interview. “I have found that to be a pattern. He talks to me occasionally now, but it’s not on the main issues.”
As for the broader funding standoff, “I thought one of two things. I thought he’d either back down. Or he’d do [a shutdown], and it would be a fight we’d win,” said Schumer. “When the president just puts together his own plan, which is almost always hard-right given who the people around him are, he has problems.”
The White House did not respond to a request for comment. But in a tweetstorm Thursday, Trump excoriated Democrats for wanting “illegals to pour through our borders” and trying to “bail out their donors from insurance companies,” a reference to the party’s insistence on continuing Obamacare payments.
“I promise to rebuild our military and secure our border. Democrats want to shut down the government. Politics!” Trump wrote.
Lawmakers in both parties are struggling to reconcile Trump’s blustery public persona with his flexibility on his signature campaign pledge of getting Mexico to pay for the wall, which has morphed into a demand that Congress do so. Schumer deliberated this winter over whether to make public his caucus’ specific opposition to the wall, ultimately deciding to send Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) a letter vowing explicitly to block a spending bill that includes funding for it.
Now that that strategy has succeeded, with little more required than sticking to their message, emboldened Democrats say they’re taking the president’s threats with a big dollop of salt.
“His folks are beginning to recognize that getting a deal done in Congress requires listening, engaging and sometimes strategic or tactical retreats,” said Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.). “The more he does draw red lines that aren’t reasonably accomplishable, the more he simply harms his own credibility with his own party.”
Republicans, and even some moderate Democrats, are hoping the president is transforming from an erratic candidate into a more deliberative commander in chief. They view his retreat from a potential government shutdown over the wall as a cause for optimism.
“He’s evolving,” said a Republican senator. “Somebody told him you don’t have to build a wall next to the Rio Grande River.”
“I’m going to cut him slack. I don’t know if caved is the right term. Maybe it is,” said Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.). In the fall, “there’s a possibility he’ll get more educated and make the right decision” and not inject the issue into funding talks again.
If Trump does forgo such a fight, the president could face a backlash from the likes of Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh, who are frustrated that the president gave in this time around.
Trump’s moves on the wall and Obamacare subsidies could be instructive as to how he’ll square off with congressional Democrats in the future. There are at least two more major leverage points this year, the debt ceiling and a September spending bill, that will allow both parties to try to insert their priorities in must-pass legislation.
But if Trump does demand money for the wall or other priorities later this year, Democrats say they won’t take his public statements at face value.
“You can’t trust anything that comes out. Because he’s going to change his position on everything,” said Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.). “He flip-flops on so many things.”
The wall fight was always going to be difficult for Trump to win. He faces significant skepticism among border-state Republicans, and the GOP has been divided as Trump and his emissaries demanded that Congress provide funding.
It’s a stark contrast to a confrontation in 2015, when Republicans were mostly united behind a hard-line approach aimed at gutting former President Barack Obama’s executive actions on immigration. That gambit failed, but the House at least passed a bill with such a provision, and McConnell forced Democrats to vote on it.
The fact that few Republicans in the Capitol backed Trump’s strategy for the wall only strengthened Democrats’ resolve.
“Republicans in Congress don’t want the wall. And that is the most under-reported aspect of this whole skirmish,” said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii). “Republicans in the leadership of both chambers actually hate that idea. They know it’s dumb.”
If Trump forces the issue again in September, when a new spending bill must be negotiated, the political dynamics on Capitol Hill will be the same.
“I don’t see the Democrats getting more agreeable,” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas).
Cornyn said he is working with Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly on developing a comprehensive border security plan that would rely on technology and manpower rather than only a massive concrete physical barrier intended at keeping out undocumented immigrants.
Eventually, Democrats are prepared to vote on whether to fund the border wall, but not as part of a government spending bill. They expect that there will be bipartisan opposition to it, revealing the lack of support for one of the president’s top priorities.
“It certainly won’t get 60 votes. It wouldn’t get 50,” Schumer predicted.
For all his administration’s talk about Trump’s insistence on the border wall in spending bills, Trump never used his strongest piece of leverage: A threat to veto any bill that didn’t include a down payment on his wall. But even if he does, Democrats say the result will be the same.
“The wall is broadly unpopular in the public. People would rather spend money on other priorities. And there’s unified Democratic opposition,” added Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.). “None of that changes in September.”
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