Senior White House officials insisted throughout the day on Wednesday that Donald Trump was poised to go with his State of the Union “Plan B.” But the president essentially called a retreat from the latest battle in his feud with Speaker Nancy Pelosi by being the first to swerve in a high-stakes game of chicken.
The president on Wednesday night announced he would delay his second State of the Union address until after the partial government shutdown ends, also saying in a tweet that he is no longer seeking an alternate venue to deliver the address on Tuesday night. It was another abrupt reversal for Trump, and one that came after he warned, just hours before, that he believed Pelosi wanted to cancel rather than postpone his big speech.
Asked Wednesday afternoon why he wasn’t going to take the speaker up on her plan to delay the speech, he shot back: “That’s not what she means,” indicating the president believes Pelosi’s goal is to prevent him from entering the chamber this year.
Trump insisted Pelosi mostly wanted to prevent him from talking about his policy moves since taking office and the state of the U.S. economy, calling the SOTU standoff “something she can’t win,” which he claimed led her to say, “Let’s cancel, for the first time in the history of our country, let’s cancel the State of the Union address.” But curiously, just hours after he blasted Pelosi’s decision to prevent him from coming Tuesday by not bringing a required resolution to a vote as a “disgrace,” Trump announced he would go along with her plan.
Here are three takeaways from the president’s odd and anticlimactic SOTU decision:
Win for ‘Nancy’
Perhaps no other politician or public figure — Democratic or Republican — is as willing to take on Trump as Pelosi. And it’s difficult to find even one who seems to get the best of him in the public relations game like the speaker.
“Nancy Pelosi, or ‘Nancy,’ as I call her, doesn’t want to hear the truth,” Trump said Wednesday about his claim that she doesn’t want him talking about his record and the economy from the well of the House.
The president reportedly respects Pelosi, seeing her as a fighter who can match his counterpuncher approach. He has no derisive nickname for her like “Cryin’ Chuck” (Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer), “Pocahontas” (Sen. Elizabeth Warren), “Da Nang Dick” (Sen. Richard Blumenthal), “Low Energy Jeb” (Jeb Bush) or “Crazy Joe Biden” for the former vice president.
But make no mistake, Trump and the White House dared Pelosi to prevent him from entering the House chamber on Tuesday night. She didn’t blink, and Trump’s aides were scrambling Wednesday afternoon to figure out their next move. Pelosi called Trump’s bluff, and he backed down. Point to Pelosi.
Poor POTUS polls
There are those who have studied polling data for decades who believe the president is not being harmed politically by the partial shutdown. But Trump and his team respond to developments in the moment — sober, long-term decisions are not his style.
His Wednesday night decision to give Pelosi her way is yet another sign of Trump’s gut instinct to focus on immediate action — including altering media narratives in his news cycle-to-news cycle battle with his foes.
Just consider what some CNN on-air anchors refer to as the network’s “poll of polls,” which averages surveys from Gallup, the Pew Research Center, the NPR/PBS Newshour/Marist College poll, one by CBS News and its own polling. The most recent version of this average put the president’s approval rating at 37 percent against a 57 percent disapproval rating. (As a measuring stick: His approval low point in Gallup’s regular poll is 36 percent, and his disapproval high is 60 percent.)
More in-the-moment fodder that Trump has likely seen while watching cable news: A CBS poll out this week found seven in 10 Americans do not believe his proposed southern border wall is worth the shutdown, now in its 34th day. And one of Trump’s top economic advisers went on cable news and admitted the shutdown could freeze economic growth; the president has signaled he intends his re-election campaign to focus largely on the economy.
One GOP pollster, granted anonymity to be candid, reported seeing recent poll data that showed Trump’s approval rating in the “high 20s” since the partial shutdown began just days before Christmas. “That’s a rare sign that his base is among those not happy with how he’s handling all of this,” the pollster said. “He knows he needs that group of core supporters, and we’ve seen him react before when this sub-approval number dips.” He did so again on Wednesday night.
Likely not. Trump’s State of the Union delay decision appears more like what then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld described as a “strategic pause” rather than a full retreat during a particularly rough time in the George W. Bush administration’s Iraq War.
Trump’s move shows the White House is aware that it’s not exactly winning the shutdown. But during a Wednesday meeting with conservative leaders, the president insisted he isn’t backing down on his demand for $5.7 billion in funding for his border barrier, signaling the stalemate will continue for some time.
“The Republican deficit in support on the shutdown is so large at present that it would take a long time for enough people to move to thinking it’s the Democrats’ fault,” said Marc Hetherington, a University of North Carolina political science professor. “I doubt that all the time in the world would be enough time absent some game-changing event.”
Just nine hours after handing Pelosi a big win, the president was on Twitter digging in anew on the wall — the one major sticking point that will cause 800,000 federal employees to miss a second paycheck on Friday as some turn to food banks and senior administration officials struggle to express much empathy, as Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross — long a wealthy business titan — did on Thursday morning.
The president wrote that without his wall, “there cannot be safety and security at the Border or for the U.S.A.,” adding the new slogan he coined Wednesday morning: “BUILD THE WALL AND CRIME WILL FALL!”
Without a Wall there cannot be safety and security at the Border or for the U.S.A. BUILD THE WALL AND CRIME WILL FALL!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 24, 2019
‘They’ve become radicalized’: Watch Trump’s response to Pelosi’s SOTU disinvite