If Yogi Berra, the New York Yankees hall of fame catcher, was around to gaggle with reporters at the White House or in a Capitol hallway about the ongoing border security spending and government shutdown drama, he would likely note that it feels “like déjà vu all over again.”
Washington has entered a time warp of sorts as President Donald Trump and his top aides tiptoe up to the edge of declaring he will sign a bipartisan compromise package that would hand him $4.3 billion less for his proposed U.S.-Mexico border wall than he has for months demanded. By Wednesday morning, it became increasingly difficult to be sure whether it was December 2018 or February 2019.
From parsing Trump’s lukewarm reaction to a border security bill that Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer called “the last train leaving the station” to senior White House officials sending up tepid signals of their boss’s inclination to sign it to members of his own party practically pleading with him to do so, only the lack of holiday season decorations around Washington make clear this is the sequel rather than the original.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders on multiple times Wednesday did not resist reporters’ floating the notion that Trump was inclined to sign the bill the House will take up Thursday.
Watch: Sanders: ‘At the end of the day the president is going to build the wall’
“The president isn’t fully happy, as he said yesterday, with everything that’s in the legislation — but there are some positive pieces of it,” she told reporters outside the West Wing, before suggesting Trump will soon try to unlock more border wall funds by declaring a national emergency at the border: “At the end of the day, the president is going to build the wall.”
That statement is consistent with the White House’s messaging about the compromise bill — and, in fitting déjà vu fashion, it’s practically the exact language Sanders and other senior Trump aides used back in December. Since it’s the “Trump Show,” expect plenty more moments that feel a lot like the days and hours before the 35-day government shutdown started.
There is one difference, however. Last time, Trump said he would “take the mantle” of a shutdown. On Wednesday, he said another shutdown would be a “terrible thing.”
Here are three things to watch as you set your shutdown countdown clocks.
White House officials have often struggled to broadcast the same messages about any given issue, knocking each other off message as frequently as their boss does. But by Tuesday evening, they had gotten the memo about Speaker Nancy Pelosi saying last month that she would only give Trump “one dollar” for his border barrier.
“This has made some progress,” Sanders said Wednesday of the border wall debate. “Nancy Pelosi said she wasn’t going to give a dollar for the wall. This has roughly $1.4 billion that’ll go towards the wall.”
But the California Democrat won’t be the lone target if Trump applies his signature to the spending legislation.
“As he said yesterday, that’s not what he wants,” Sanders said of Trump. “If that’s what Democrats choose to do, then that’s going to be on them. … If it happens again, it will be because the Democrats completely failed to do their job.” (Democrats, of course, say the opposite, as both sides are playing the pre-emptive blame game.)
‘Chuck and Nancy’
If the president develops cold feet — likely again with the help of conservative opinion-shapers such as Ann Coulter, who on Tuesday called him “afraid to fight” for the wall — don’t be surprised if familiar faces show up in the Oval Office.
But those senior lawmakers likely will not be Schumer or Pelosi in a repeat of their pre-shutdown Dec. 11 bicker-fest with the president at the White House on national television. If Trump indeed is inclined to put his signature on the compromise bill mostly to avert another shutdown, then a meeting with the duo he calls “Chuck and Nancy” would look like he caved to two of the Democrats his conservative base hates most. And, the one consistent thing in Trump World is this: It’s all about the base.
So it’s more likely that if Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy need to help Trump get to yes, they’ll deploy some of his allies — perhaps Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina or John Cornyn of Texas — or the chief Republican architect of the border bill, Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby of Alabama.
“This compromise is typical of the D.C. sewer and swamp,” Fox News personality Sean Hannity said Tuesday, a day after declaring it “garbage” and questioning how the president could ever support it.
Coulter was equally scathing in a tweet, writing, “Trump talks a good game on the border wall but it’s increasingly clear he’s afraid to fight for it. Call this his ‘Yellow New Deal.’”
“It would be perfectly reasonable for President Trump to reject this bill,” Hannity said in the kind of rhetoric that helped convince Trump to reject a Senate bill with more border wall funding ($1.6 billion) and force the December-January shutdown. But then, notably, came a shift that amounted to Hannity, who is immensely popular with Trump’s base, giving him cover.
The Fox talker, unlike in December, then said Trump should sign the compromise bill. He told his viewers that the president has the freedom to accept what he sees as a flawed bill because Trump could next unilaterally shift almost $1 billion into the wall project before accessing Pentagon dollars by declaring a national emergency.
In a sign conservatives want to help Trump avoid another politically damaging shutdown, Hannity even employed something world leaders who are trying to garner Trump’s support: flattery.
“Despite what the haters on both sides of the aisle are telling you,” he told his millions of viewers, “President Trump is tenacious, and he will fight to get that wall built.”
House Rules ranking member Tom Cole suggested Wednesday that GOP members are prepared to back the president — and reassure his base.
“I think there’ll be substantial Republican support,” the Oklahoma lawmaker said. “I don’t think [Democratic leaders] get to 218, but I think we’ll get a substantial bipartisan vote.”
Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.