With 20 words Thursday, President Donald Trump bowed to the demands of his conservative base and all but ensured nine cabinet departments and a handful of other federal agencies will shut down Friday night.
“In life, there are certain principles worth fighting for, principles that are more important than politics, party, or personal convenience,” Trump said about a government funding standoff with Democrats over his demand for $5 billion for his southern border wall.
The “principles” to which the president referred are a set of hardline immigration policies he and senior aides like domestic policy adviser Stephen Miller — a former Senate aide to then-Sen. Jeff Sessions, long one of the chamber’s most conservative members — have pushed since Trump was a candidate for office.
“The safety and security and sovereignty of the United States is the most important principle of all,” Trump said during remarks before he signed a bipartisan farm bill. “If we don't stand strong for our national borders, then we cease to be a nation and we betray our commitment to the loyal citizens of our great country.”
The president told an audience that included Republican and Democratic lawmakers that he “look[s] forward to signing a bill that fulfills our fundamental duty to the American people.”
“It is all about — and I say this in any way they want to hear it — it’s all about ‘America first,’” Trump said, appearing to refer to his conservative base. “We have to put our country first. We have to put our people first. And we have to put safety first.”
The president ticked off a number of statistics that he contends show tens of thousands of undocumented immigrants are able to enter the United States each year.
“Yet, the Democrats continue to oppose border security, no matter how many innocent people get hurt or die. Ridiculously and dangerously, certain people want open borders, which allow potentially massive crime,” he said. “Our nation has spent trillions of dollars and sacrificed thousands of brave young lives defending the borders of foreign nations. I am asking Congress to defend the border of our nation for a tiny fraction — tiny fraction of the cost.”
Then, he made clear, that assuaging his conservative base also is among the “principles” that guide his decision making.
“I’ve made my position very clear: Any measure that funds the government must include border security. It has to. Not for political purposes but for our country, for the safety of our community,” he said. “This is not merely my campaign promise, this is the promise every lawmaker made. It is the solemn promise to protect and defend the United States of America. And it is our sacred obligation. We have no choice.”
Translation: Trump feels he has “no choice” but to placate his conservative critics.
Prominent conservative opinion-shapers like Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter rattled him in recent days for what they saw as him about to “cave” and sign a Senate-passed spending measure to keep the agencies open and put off a border wall fight until early February. They also were not thrilled about his advocacy for a criminal justice overhaul measure that lightened some sentencing policies.
“Trump gets nothing and the Democrats get everything, including control of the House in a few short weeks,” Limbaugh said Wednesday on his show. A day later, Limbaugh told his listeners that the president told him personally that “if it comes back to him without money, if whatever happens in the House and Senate comes back to him with no allocation of $5 billion for the wall, then he’s going to veto it.”
And Coulter published a column on the Breitbart site, which is popular with conservatives, with this headline: “Gutless President in Wall-Less Country.”
On a podcast posted on another right-leaning news site, Daily Caller, Coulter added this: “This utterly unlikely and, at least for president, in many ways, a not particularly attractive presidential candidate beat the most qualified woman ever to run for the office (Hillary Clinton), basically on one promise: the promise to build a wall and never backing down on that.”
Then there was a constant mid-week drumbeat on Fox News criticizing him for failing to secure the $5 billion for the wall as Democrats are poised to gain more power in January when they take control of the House — and its annual Homeland Security spending bills that would contain any border wall monies.
The conservative blowback appeared prompted by White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Tuesday suggesting her boss was willing to sign the Senate’s short-term spending measure and move around existing federal funds for the wall.
“We have other ways to get to that $5 billion, that we will work with Congress if they will make sure that we get a bill passed that provides not just the funding for the wall, but there's a piece of legislation that's been pushed around that Democrats actually voted 26-5 out of committee, that provides 26, roughly $26 billion in border security, including $1.6 billion for the wall,” Sanders said on Fox News.
“That’s something that we would be able to support as long as we can couple that with other funding resources that would help us get to the $5 billion,” she said. “At the end of the day, we don’t want to shut down the government, we want to shut down the border.”
Instead of starting Friday by expressing a willingness to try eleventh-hour negotiations with Democrats, the president again pivoted toward his base, which is much more reflected in the House Republican caucus than the Senate GOP conference.
“No matter what happens today in the Senate, Republican House Members should be very proud of themselves,” Trump tweeted. “Not one Democrat voted yes, and we won big. I am very proud of you!”
Elaine Kamarck, a former Clinton White House official now with the left-leaning Brookings Institution, recently told Roll Call “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.”
“This was him going back to his comfort zone,” she said.
Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report, predicts the base-based strategy will continue. “Why the Trump ‘more cowbell’ strategy (all base all the time) will continue: R voters didn’t see ’18 as a repudiation,” she tweeted, referring to Republicans losing the House and a slew of state legislature seats in November’s midterm elections.
Why the Trump "more cowbell" strategy (all base all the time) will continue: R voters didn't see '18 as a repudiation. Check out these #s from NBC/WSJ. (1/2)— amy walter (@amyewalter) December 20, 2018
And Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, opined that “no one should be surprised if there is a shutdown”
“When Trump is embattled, two things are true: One, he doubles down on inflaming and inciting his base,” according to Ornstein. “Two, he looks for a distraction to take attention away from the incriminating news. A shutdown is two for two.”
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