Road to a gov't shutdown: A journey that went nowhere

The president previously promised he wouldn't blame Democrats for a shutdown.

December 21, 2018, 12:48 PM

As his Oval Office meeting last week with Democratic leaders turned into a bitter sparring match over his demand that border wall money be included in a government funding bill, President Donald Trump leaned forward in his chair and raised his voice at Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.

"I am proud to shut down the government for border security, Chuck, because the people of this country don't want criminals and people that have lots of problems and drugs pouring into our country," Trump said last Tuesday. "I will be the one to shut it down. I'm not going to blame you for it."

But 10 days later, on the eve of a possible shutdown amid an impasse in negotiations between House and Senate Republicans, President Trump took to Twitter to reverse course completely.

"The Democrats now own the shutdown!" he wrote Friday.

A closer look at the path from there to here highlights a maddeningly-circular journey that ultimately led right back to the spot where it started -- just in time for the holidays.

At the center of the fight is President Trump's campaign pledge to build a wall along the southern border, an issue he sees as key to preserving the base of voters who propelled him to his surprise 2016 victory. While the president long promised that Mexico would pay for the wall, he drew an immediate red line -- insisting the government funding package include $5 billion of the $25 billion total estimated for the wall's construction.

The president's shift away from an outright pledge to take the "mantle" of a Christmastime shutdown followed a whirlwind week and a half where the odds of a funding lapse seemed to fluctuate by the hour.

Congressional Republicans sought to coalesce divisions among their own members while at the same time trying to get a clear picture of the what Trump would inevitably approve, though there was broad recognition that there was no path to $5 billion for the wall in the Senate where a spending bill would require 60 votes.

Presumptive incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi seemed to dare the president in their Oval Office meeting that a $5 billion wall vote would be doomed not only in the Senate but the House.

Democrats, emboldened by a sweeping victory in the House during the November midterms, soon drew their own red line of zero money for 'new' border wall construction, while remaining open to as much as $1.6 billion of border security funding for the Department of Homeland Security.

Trump turned his sights on hammering Democrats throughout the week as advocating for 'open borders' as they repeatedly shot down offers from Republicans on packages that included wall funding and argued Republicans had lost all leverage when Trump agreed to take ownership of any shutdown.

Early in the week as the president's planned 17-day vacation in Mar a Lago was fast approaching, in the White House there seemed to be a growing recognition that the demand for $5 billion would not be attainable.

Press secretary Sarah Sanders said in Tuesday briefing that the president had tasked Cabinet members with finding ways to direct existing funds in their agencies towards a wall, which Democrats argued violated federal appropriations rules.

“At this point, we're disappointed in the fact they've yet to vote and pass something,” Sanders said. “When they do that, we'll make a determination whether we're going to sign that.”

The next morning, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway denied the president was "softening his stance" on a border wall in a surprisingly contentious exchange with the anchors of 'Fox and Friends.' At the same time, she announced that Trump would "certainly look at" a government funding extension floated by Senate Republicans that would keep the government open through Feb. 8 but not include any new funding for a wall.

But as the package cleared the Senate, the protests from Trump's conservative media allies grew louder by the minute.

"I think the not funding the wall will go down as one of the worst, worst things to have happened to this administration," Fox News host Laura Ingraham warned on her show.

"It looks like a lot of people's worst fears may be realized and that the president is getting ready to cave," radio host Rush Limbaugh told his listeners.

As the onslaught continued into Thursday morning, Trump, meanwhile, delivered mixed messages in a series of tweets, seeming in one to present an argument against the need for a wall, saying, "Border is tight!"

Minutes later, he vented that Republican leaders had broken their promise to guarantee the wall would be funded if he agreed to sign a separate omnibus spending bill back in March.

While leaders in the House waited for word from the White House on whether to move forward on the Senate's funding bill, President Trump held what sources described as an "emergency" phone call with outgoing Speaker Paul Ryan, and a leadership press conference was canceled as Republicans were summoned to the White House for a meeting with the president.

After more than an hour, Ryan and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy emerged without warning in front of the West Wing as reporters sprinted from their offices to the press stakeout.

"The president informed us that he will not sign the bill that came over from the Senate last evening because of his legitimate concerns for border security," Ryan said. "So what we're gonna do is go back to the House and work with our members, we want to keep the government open but we also want to see an agreement that protects the border."

Later, House Republicans were able to clear the Senate's package with $5.8 billion in border security coupled with $7.8 billion in disaster relief funds tacked on, spelling almost certain doom for the bill upon its return to the Senate.

Nonetheless, the White House and President Trump declared victory in calling Pelosi's bluff.

But as the White House still seemed to lack a strategy in overcoming the obstacle posed by the Senate's 60-vote margin as multiple senators were already making their way home for the winter break, Trump made his first attempt at shedding the idea he would own the increasing likelihood of a shutdown.

As Senate Republicans made their way to the White House for a meeting with the president on the funding bill, Pelosi and Schumer responded to the president with a cutdown of his Oval Office comments.