ANALYSIS | Vice President Mike Pence looked taken aback, barely moving and saying nothing as President Donald Trump and the top Democratic congressional leaders bickered and moved the country — with each insult and barb — closer to a partial holiday season government shutdown.
The former Indiana congressman’s statuesque performance was a contrast to the kinetic scene unfolding around him, another made-for-television moment that allowed the bombastic Republican president to pick a fight with the two Democrats perhaps most reviled by his conservative base on live cable TV.
Trump’s Oval Office meeting with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer was initially scheduled to be private. However, the president — a former reality television star and executive producer — had other ideas. He summoned the small group of journalists in the day’s press pool to watch the negotiation — such as it was — live.
The president started with his usual border wall sales pitch, including several false and partially false statements. He jabbed at the Democratic leaders. And they were willing — even eager, at times — to take the bait as Pelosi, according to an aide in the room, told members of her caucus once back at the Capitol: “It was so wild. It goes to show you: You get into a tinkle contest with a skunk, you get tinkle all over you.”
Watch: Border Wall Meeting Gets Hectic Between Trump, Schumer, Pelosi
Here are three takeaways from the incredible Oval Office border brawl.
Trump’s ‘incredible’ pledge
Presidents and congressional leaders of different political parties typically try to pass blame for government shutdowns on to each other. Not Trump during a meeting several sources used the same word to describe: “incredible.” The president pre-emptively took ownership over the possible closure of the Homeland Security Department and a handful of other federal entities unless a deal is reached by 11:59 p.m., Eastern time, on Dec. 21.
“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. So I will take the mantle,” Trump said. “I will be the one to shut it down. I’m not going to blame you for it. The last time you shut it down, it didn’t work. I will take the mantle of shutting down.”
Pelosi later told the group of House Democrats that getting that vow from Trump was “an accomplishment.” She also could not help but jab Trump where it might hurt. “It’s like a manhood thing for him. As if manhood could ever be associated with him. This wall thing,” she said, according to the aide.
One former GOP congressional aide responded by saying, “Schumer got what he needed: On any partial shutdown, POTUS is willing to take the heat.”
So much winning
Those who have watched Trump closely know he often pivots toward his conservative base when he senses political trouble. He did so again on Tuesday, first with a series of tweets ahead of the meeting that made the case for the border barrier and then repeatedly in the Oval Office as the sparks flew.
“When you look at what happened with the caravans, with the people, with a lot of — we shut it down; we had no choice. We shut it down. But it could be a lot easier if we had real border security,” Trump said at one point, returning to his midterm campaign-trail rhetoric. He also landed a few body shots on Schumer, a fellow native of New York City’s tough-talking outer boroughs, like this one: “The last time you shut it down you got killed.”
“Every time this president senses trouble — and I mean with the special counsel investigation and everything with [former personal attorney] Michael Cohen and all that — he does things like this that rev up his base,” said Elaine Kamarck, a former Clinton White House official now with the left-leaning Brookings Institution. “This was him going back to his comfort zone.”
But the Democratic leaders also landed plenty of shots on the president.
Here’s one from Schumer: “The Washington Post today gave you a whole lot of Pinocchios because they say you constantly misstate … how much of the wall is built, and how much is there.”
And Pelosi: “Mr. President, please don’t characterize the strength that I bring to this meeting as the leader of the House Democrats, who just won a big victory.”
That prompted Schumer to come in like a professional wrestling tag-team partner rushing through the ropes to further soften an opponent: “Elections have consequences, Mr. President.”
Mitch: The Closer
No, not Mitch Williams, the hard-throwing 1990s Major League Baseball relief pitcher best known for his time with the Philadelphia Phillies. But one Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican who has helped broker several shutdown-averting or -ending deals over the last decade.
Tuesday’s West Wing dramatics likely won’t change how the border wall talks go over the next 10 days, Kamarck said. That’s because “it was always going to be McConnell who cuts this deal.”
“I expect it will be McConnell and Schumer who eventually get together and figure this out,” she said. “The adults will figure this out, then it’ll be up to McConnell to go convince the president to go along with it. … He’ll be the one who’ll have to explain to the president that a shutdown would be worse for us (Republicans) than it would be for the Democrats.”
Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.