Politics

Politically Wounded Trump Complicates Border Talks With Pelosi, Schumer

‘When he feels challenged … he pulls back to his base’

President Donald Trump arrives back at the White House on Friday evening without taking reporters' questions. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images file photo)

Another wild weekend — with federal prosecutors appearing to implicate Donald Trump in a pair of federal crimes and his second chief of staff leaving soon — has only complicated the president’s coming talks with Democratic leaders to avert a partial government shutdown over the holidays.

Trump is scheduled to meet in the Oval Office on Tuesday morning with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer less than two weeks before a deadline to pass legislation to keep the Department of Homeland Security and several other agencies funded and open beyond 11:59 p.m. on Dec. 21.

White House officials on Monday said Trump wants to have a back-and-forth with the Democratic leaders rather than just expressing his demands in a mostly one-way conversation. 

The high-stakes meeting was delayed one week as Washington paused for the funeral of former President George H.W. Bush. But those somber events only delayed the inevitable: a partisan clash and public relations fight that will pit Trump’s demand for $5 billion for a southern border barrier against the Democrats’ staunch opposition to one penny above a $1.6 billion border security proposal in a Senate-passed spending bill.

Schumer and Pelosi ramped up the rhetoric in a Monday statement, saying Trump “knows full well that his wall proposal does not have the votes to pass the House and Senate, and should not be an obstacle to a bipartisan agreement.”

“Republicans still control the House, the Senate, and the White House, and they have the power to keep government open. Our country cannot afford a Trump Shutdown, especially at this time of economic uncertainty,” they said.

Watch: President Trump Announces His Picks for AG and UN Ambassador

Special complication

Delaying the meeting with the Democratic leaders had one major unforeseen consequence: It put off the Oval Office confab until after special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and federal prosecutors in New York revealed pages of court filings that implicated “Individual 1” (Trump) in illegal campaign finance payments to two women by his former lawyer and “fixer” Michael Cohen to silence their allegations of extramarital affairs with Trump.

[3 Takeaways for Trump as Mueller Details Russia’s ‘Political Synergy’ Offer]

What’s more, federal investigators revealed they believe Trump had knowledge of efforts by Cohen to discuss “political synergy” and potentially conflict-creating business dealings with Russia. Cohen told federal investigators he had conversations with officials close to the president after Trump entered the White House, a new revelation that puts Mueller and his team inside the West Wing.

It all has congressional Democrats using two words to describe Trump: “unindicted co-conspirator.”

“The president has now stepped into the same territory that ultimately led to President [Richard] Nixon resigning the office. President Nixon was an unindicted co-conspirator — certainly a different set of facts,” Connecticut Sen. Christopher S. Murphy told ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday. “But this investigation is now starting to put the president in serious legal crosshairs, and he should be worried — and the whole country should be worried.”

Time and again, when Trump has sensed trouble since taking office, he has pivoted toward his conservative base. That’s one reason why after Vice President Mike Pence’s chief of staff, Nick Ayers, turned Trump down for the same job to replace the departing John F. Kelly, House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows was floated for that job.

As former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson noted in a recent interview with CBS News, Trump operates by following his instincts. That often leads him to dig in on hard-line conservative stances.

“The one thing I have come to observe is this is a president who is predictably unpredictable,” said G. William Hoagland, who was an aide to former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist.

“But when he feels challenged — as he must with the court filings and chief of staff departure, unclear of votes for his UN ambassador nominee [Heather Nauert], etc. — he pulls back to his base and will blame in this case ‘Chuck and Nancy’ for whatever is not going his way,” added Hoagland, now a senior vice president at the Bipartisan Policy Center.

‘No collusion’

The reality television star-turned-president on Monday appeared in no mood to reach across the aisle as he fired off a pair of tweets blasting Democrats over their reactions to federal investigators’ Friday filings.

[Three Takeaways as Trump Picks Former Fox Anchor for UN Envoy Post]

He wrote, quoting an unnamed speaker on Fox News, his preferred cable news network: “Democrats can’t find a Smocking [sic] Gun tying the Trump campaign to Russia after James Comey’s testimony. No Smocking Gun...No Collusion. @FoxNews”

“That’s because there was NO COLLUSION. So now the Dems go to a simple private transaction, wrongly call it a campaign contribution,” the president wrote, adding the payments were “done correctly by a lawyer and there would not even be a fine.”

That’s not what federal prosecutors from the Southern District of New York have concluded. While recommending Cohen get four years in prison, they say the fixer made the payments under the direction of his former client.

“During the campaign, Cohen played a central role in two similar schemes to purchase the rights to stories — each from women who claimed to have had an affair with Individual-1 — so as to suppress the stories and thereby prevent them from influencing the election,” the federal prosecutors wrote. “In particular, and as Cohen himself has now admitted, with respect to both payments, he acted in coordination with and at the direction of Individual-1.”

On top of that, Kelly’s departure means the coming border barrier battle is likely the last best chance for the immigration hard-liner and former Homeland Security secretary to secure as much funding as he can for the project — for which he has become a major proponent. Should he weigh in directly with Trump, that will also pull the president to the right.

Trump and Kelly “have repeatedly tried to placate the Ronald Reagan conservative wing of the Republican Party,” said one source who spoke anonymously to be candid, leaving aside Reagan’s advocacy for an immigration overhaul in the 1980s. “Since Reagan, the party has splintered over issues like the budget and taxes and immigration. That continues to this day, and this president usually sides with the Reagan faction.”

Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.