The White House is waging a public relations campaign aimed at shifting blame for what could be a lengthy government shutdown to the top House Democrat and away from President Donald Trump even though he just days ago he said he was “proud” to single-handily own it.
Trump and the top two Democratic leaders engaged in a televised war of words on December 11 in an Oval Office confrontation during which the president took ownership of the coming partial shutdown. The president told them he would be “proud to shut down the government for border security,” adding he would “take the mantle” before roaring this: “I’m not going to blame you for it.”
But Trump is now blaming House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, the California Democrat expected to again become speaker next week. The calculation is a political one: Pelosi was one of Trump’s favorite foils in his 2016 presidential campaign and as he hit the trail for November’s midterm elections. And he and his aides made clear she will be a focal point of his expected 2020 re-election campaign.
Negotiations stalled days ago, with White House and senior congressional Democratic aides unable to point to any substantive talks since Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., on Saturday rejected an offer of $2.1 billion in border barrier funding and another $400 million for other security tools made by Vice President Mike Pence.
White House aides ignored several requests for comment about any talks Thursday ahead of what turned out to be short House and Senate sessions. They kept the door at the White House that leads from the briefing room to two suites housing communications staffers locked all day. But that changed Thursday evening, when a White House official rang a Roll Call reporter and kick-started a shutdown blame game.
“The Democrats are refusing to even sit down at the table” for a new round of talks, the White House official alleged.
When pressed on whether that offer would have called for Pence, White House Office of Management and Budget Director and Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney to sit down face-to-face with Schumer and Pelosi — who likely will be speaker on Jan. 3 — the official declined to discuss specifics.
As talks with Schumer ground to a stop and nearly 800,000 federal workers wonder how long they might be going without paychecks, White House officials have slowly turned their public relations efforts toward Pelosi.
For instance, Mulvaney focused mostly on Pelosi during one Sunday morning television, saying she is “beholden to her left wing to where she cannot be seen as agreeing with the president on anything until she’s actually speaker.” That continued Thursday evening.
“It’s clear Pelosi is more interested in preserving her speakership than having an open government and a secure border,” the White House official said.
Several senior Democratic congressional aides contacted Thursday evening were taken aback by the White House’s contention that it put new talks on the table before the House and Senate announced plans to essentially punt any resolution to the partial shutdown into next year.
“Huh?!” replied one senior Democratic aide in an email a few minutes after the call with the White House official. Mostly, the Democratic aides declined to take the blame-game bait being dangled by the White House.
“Democrats have offered Republicans three options to re-open government that all include funding for strong, sensible, and effective border security — but not the President's immoral, ineffective and expensive wall,” Pelosi aide Drew Hammill said in a statement distributed to the press Thursday afternoon.
That statement came in response to a White House statement that said Trump and his aides “stayed in Washington over Christmas hoping to negotiate a deal” while “the Democrats decided to go home.”
About 90 minutes later, Trump made clear he already is viewing the shutdown and border wall fight in terms of how it might help him during his re-election campaign.
The president tweeted the contention that the ongoing shutdown “isn’t about the Wall,” adding: “This is only about the Dems not letting Donald Trump & the Republicans have a win. They may have the 10 Senate votes, but we have the issue, Border Security. 2020!”
This isn’t about the Wall, everybody knows that a Wall will work perfectly (In Israel the Wall works 99.9%). This is only about the Dems not letting Donald Trump & the Republicans have a win. They may have the 10 Senate votes, but we have the issue, Border Security. 2020!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 27, 2018
The next morning, the president was back on Twitter threatening Democrats — less than a week away from being forced to negotiate with Pelosi and a House Democratic majority to re-open nine Cabinet agencies and a list of smaller federal offices.
He claimed he will be “forced to close the Southern Border entirely if the Obstructionist Democrats do not give us the money to finish the Wall & also change the ridiculous immigration laws that our Country is saddled with.”
And in another sign the coming talks with Pelosi will be as much about his political future than anything else, he used another tweet to warn another migrant caravan is forming in Central America and to again threaten to cut off U.S. aid to Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.
We will be forced to close the Southern Border entirely if the Obstructionist Democrats do not give us the money to finish the Wall & also change the ridiculous immigration laws that our Country is saddled with. Hard to believe there was a Congress & President who would approve!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 28, 2018
But the president’s Friday morning tweets contained a veiled message to the incoming speaker with whom he is set to do battle until Election Day in 2020: “Either we build (finish) the Wall or we close the Border.”
.....close the Southern Border. Bring our car industry back into the United States where it belongs. Go back to pre-NAFTA, before so many of our companies and jobs were so foolishly sent to Mexico. Either we build (finish) the Wall or we close the Border......— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 28, 2018
.....Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador are doing nothing for the United States but taking our money. Word is that a new Caravan is forming in Honduras and they are doing nothing about it. We will be cutting off all aid to these 3 countries - taking advantage of U.S. for years!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 28, 2018