After Holiday Lull, Trump-Era Action Returns to White House

President muddies shutdown negotiations, talks about being home alone with machine guns

Garbage overflows a trash can on the National Mall across from the White House on Tuesday. The National Park Service, which is responsible for trash removal, is not operating due to the goverment shutdown. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Garbage overflows a trash can on the National Mall across from the White House on Tuesday. The National Park Service, which is responsible for trash removal, is not operating due to the goverment shutdown. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted January 2, 2019 at 5:42pm

Congressional leaders emerged from a Situation Room border security briefing Wednesday with Donald Trump without a deal to end a partial government shutdown, but the president showed anew how he often is driven by a belief public opinion will shift and force political foes to fold.

“A lot of people are going to come around to my way of thinking,” Trump said last week of his unilateral decision to withdraw all U.S. military troops from Syria. And on Wednesday, the commander in chief made clear he believes if he merely has Homeland Security officials explain to Democratic congressional leaders why his proposed U.S.-Mexico border wall is necessary, they will, in his words, “come around” and give him more than $5 billion and agree to reopen a quarter of the federal government.

Asked what were his goals for the afternoon meeting in the secure room beneath the White House, Trump replied: “All this is is to tell Chuck and Nancy … how bad it is, how dangerous it is, and why we need a wall.”

Republican leaders emerged from the meeting first, telling reporters outside the West Wing that their Democratic counterparts made no counteroffer to a White House proposal they rejected before Christmas.

Schumer: Trump Holding Federal Employees ‘Hostage’

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Trump invited congressional leaders back to the White House on Friday to continue a border security briefing after congressional leadership elections set for the next day, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the incoming House minority leader, told reporters.

The president told House Democratic leaders he opposes shutdown-ending legislation they plan to bring to votes Thursday, the next House GOP leader said.

Democratic leaders came out next, with Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer saying he asked the president for “one good reason” he would not support passing six other department spending bills while talks about border security funding continue. “He could not give one answer,” Schumer said.

He accused the president and Republicans of holding federal workers “hostage.”

[Trump Digs In For Border Wall Fight With Foe His Base Loves to Hate]

Both sides said the session did not mark any formal restart of negotiations, with Republican and Democratic leaders offering only a shared “hope” that the unfunded departments and offices can reopen, as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell put it back at the Capitol, “in the coming days and weeks.” The Kentucky Republican allowed that “I don’t think any particular progress was made today. But we talked about all aspects of it, and it was a civil discussion.”

Trump has yet to flash the bipartisan deal-making ability he promised as a candidate. Instead, he signaled he is trying to wear down incoming Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Schumer as the partial shutdown entered its 12th day. Multiple polls show a majority of voters oppose the president’s proposed southern border barrier and disapprove of how he is handling the shutdown.

But the president is undeterred, and has dismissed polls before. He frequently notes that polls in the weeks and days before his 2016 election win over Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton showed her with a lead. (The polls closely mirrored the popular vote, even as Trump won the Electoral College.)

“I think the people of our country think I’m right,” Trump said a few hours before Pelosi, Schumer and other congressional leaders arrived at the executive mansion.

Things got back to normal — or what passes for it under the former reality television host’s tenure — at the White House on Wednesday following a holiday lull that featured quiet days inside the compound’s gates and little action outside of presidential tweets.

The door behind the briefing room podium that leads to two press offices was locked most days since the shutdown began, which coincided with the Christmas-New Year holiday stretch. Trump tweeted several times he was in the Oval Office during that span, but the Marine who stands guard outside the West Wing when any chief executive is in that part of the compound was nowhere to be found.

That door was unlocked Wednesday, and the Marine was standing his post around 10 a.m. Trump held a Cabinet meeting and kept reporters and cameras in the room for over 90 minutes as he delivered several diatribes on a range of issues.

[Trump Compares His Win, Romney’s Loss in Responding to Harsh Critique]

Another sign that the holiday lull was over at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.: The president further muddied the waters on what a shutdown-ending deal might look like just as Democratic leaders were hoping to restart talks.

At one point during the Cabinet meeting, Vice President Mike Pence again floated his offer to Schumer for $2.1 billion for Trump’s border barrier and another $400 million for a border security account Democrats reject, calling it a “slush fund.” But Trump appeared to reject his own lead negotiator’s offer.

No, not $2.5. We’re asking for $5.6,” Trump said, speaking in billions for his border wall funding demand. “The $5.6 billion is such a small number.”

“We’re going to see,” he said. “Maybe they’ll have an idea.”

What’s more, there was the typical action around inaction — something that was around in Washington long before the current Oval Office occupant but has intensified during his tenure. “Hopefully we can get there Friday,” McCarthy said, referring to congressional leaders and White House officials having a conversation about merely pursuing “common ground” on ending the partial government shutdown.

And there were some typical Trump-era oddities. The president told reporters he was holed up over the Christmas week in his “big house.”

Well, almost.

“Except for all of the guys out on the lawn with machine guns,” he said with a grin. “All alone with the machine-gunners.”

Jennifer Shutt contributed to this report.