White House

Democrats skeptical weekend talks will hold beyond next Trump tweet

‘No one on the president’s staff ... speaks for the president, except the president,’ Dem source says

President Donald Trump argues about border security with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and then-House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., as Vice President Mike Pence sits nearby in the Oval Office on Dec. 11. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images file photo)

Congressional leaders deployed senior aides for talks Saturday talks in Vice President Mike Pence’s office on ending a partial government. But Democrats remain skeptical that any discussions will last beyond the next presidential tweet.

Three hours before the talks were set to begin in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building across the street from the White House, the president fired off a series of eyebrow-raising tweets. Several kept up his harsh criticism of Democrats and another painted them as missing in action even though the president himself on Friday predicted progress during the weekend talks.

The president last month said he would be “proud” to “take the mantle” of a partial shutdown before nine Cabinet agencies and other federal offices were shuttered. But 15 days in, he is blaming Democrats even after telling their top leaders in mid-December he would not do so.

As senior congressional aides were preparing to huddle with Pence, Trump fired off a tweet saying the opposition party “could solve the Shutdown problem in a very short period of time.”

[Presidential contradictions: 3 takeaways from Trump‘s Friday fracas]

“All they have to do is approve REAL Border Security (including a Wall),” he wrote, continuing his practice of verbally avoiding using the word “wall” to give Democrats, in his word, “an out” to possibly support funding for “artistically designed steel slats” or fencing. And he appeared to suggest that unless they agree to wall funding, they are on part with “drug dealers, human traffickers and criminals.”

In another tweet, the president alerts his millions of followers that he was “in the White House ready to go,” before asking: “where are the Dems?”

On the former: Trump could have insisted he be a part of the weekend negotiations, but agreed to staff-level talks with Pence, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and White House adviser and presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner. On the latter: The Democratic leaders were, like Trump, awaiting word from their representatives at the talks to which he agreed about any breakthroughs or continued loggerheads.

The Saturday tweets appears, yet again, aimed directly at the president’s core conservative supporters who fiercely want a border wall and despite Democratic leaders like Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York. That’s because Trump on Friday delivered an upbeat assessment of talks with the other side.

“I'm not saying it was an easy meeting or even a kind meeting or a nice meeting, but in the end I think we've come a long way,” he said during an impromptu Rose Garden press conference. “We're going to be working very hard over the weekend, and we'll see if we can do something.”

The differing messages are vintage Trump, who often changes his mind and contradicts himself and senior aides sometimes within hours. That’s why some senior Democratic lawmakers and aides question whether any weekend talks that might produce progress will be blown up as soon as Trump learns what was discussed or possibly agreed to.

“We've seen over the last few weeks that no one on the president's staff - up to the vice president — speaks for the president, except the president himself,” said one Democratic source.

That’s a big change from when the last president, Barack Obama, would at least once a year deploy his vice president, Joseph R. Biden Jr., to negotiate with congressional leaders.

“The reason why when you send me around the world, nothing gets — as my mom would say — gets missed between the cup and the lip is because they know when I speak, I speak for you,” Biden told Obama at a ceremony during their final days in office.

Another Democratic source familiar with Friday's White House meeting, was eager to downplay the Saturday session as Trump was busily playing it up in the Rose Garden.

This source said it was Pence, not Trump, who “floated the idea of staff negotiations through the weekend.”

“In response, both Speaker Pelosi and Senator Schumer urged the president to commit to re-opening government by Tuesday. President Trump refused,” the second Democratic source said. “To be clear, the phrase ‘working group’ was not discussed in the meeting. We expect staff discussions will continue as they have been.”

Schumer earlier this week said the White House’s negotiating tactics and stances often are “quickly overtaken by hard-right forces.” He described to reporters that he thought, before the shutdown, he and Trump had a deal to avoid one.

“Several hours later he called back. He said, ‘So, I hear we have a three-week deal.’ I said, ‘No, Mr. President, no one is even talking about a three-week deal,’ ” Schumer said. “Then a few hours later they called back again, ‘Well we’re going to need this, this, this in addition.’ Things they knew were far, far right and off the table.”

“Negotiating with this White House is like negotiating with Jell-O,” he said.

Watch: Schumer: Trump Holding Federal Employees ‘Hostage’

Stan Collender, a former congressional budget aide, wrote in a Friday op-ed that with Trump “only thinking about a political win rather than the human and economic damage he’s causing, he really has little incentive to compromise with congressional Democrats over funding for the wall he wants built between the United States and Mexico.

[Trump affirms shutdown could last 'months or even years']

“And until that changes, his incentive to hold fast just isn’t likely to go in a different direction,” Collender wrote.

But House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy on Friday painted a more upbeat picture.

“I actually felt good about the progress that we made. We didn’t agree to anything, but there is in discussion that we had ... areas we could agree on,” he told reporters at the Capitol following the Situation Room meeting and joining Trump in the Rose Garden. “We had some really good discussion about other challenges in there. So we thought that it was an improvement.”

But during the meeting, Trump warned Schumer and Pelosi he might keep the shuttered agencies and offices closed for “years” if they continue to oppose his demand to give him his desired $5.6 billion for the proposed border barrier.

“I don't think so,” McCarthy said about a years-long partial shutdown. “My goal is to get this done. Everybody should be in the mode to work to get this solved. It was the president’s idea to make sure that we had people working this weekend because we didn't get it done.”

Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.

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