Inside Trump’s Shutdown Turnaround

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 19: United States President Donald J. Trump makes remarks as he hosts a naturalization ceremony in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC on Saturday, January 19, 2019. (Photo by Ron Sachs-Pool/Getty Images)

The White House denied on Sunday that Donald Trump “caved” to Democrats in reopening the federal government despite not receiving any funding for a border wall – a deal Trump had vowed he would never make.

His poll numbers were plummeting. His FBI director was decrying the dysfunction. The nation’s air travel was in chaos. Federal workers were lining up at food banks. Economic growth was at risk of flat lining, and even some Republican senators were in open revolt.

So, on Friday, the 35th day of a government shutdown that he said he was proud to instigate, President Trump finally folded. After vowing for weeks that he would keep the government closed unless he secured billions in funding for his promised border wall, Trump agreed to reopen it. “He was the prisoner of his own impulse and it turned into a catastrophe for him,” said David Axelrod, who was a White House adviser to President Barack Obama. “The House of Representatives has power and authority — and now a speaker who knows how to use it — so that has to become part of his calculation or he’ll get embarrassed again.”

Trump’s quest for at least some portion of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border is not over, however. Friday’s agreement only temporarily reopens the government, providing a three-week period for Congress to negotiate a longer-term spending agreement. The president said he would continue advocating for his signature campaign promise and threatened to again shut down the government or declare a national emergency to use his unilateral powers to build the wall if Congress does not appropriate funding for it by Feb. 15.

This account of Trump’s stymied pursuit of border wall funding is based on interviews with more than a dozen senior administration officials, Trump confidants and others briefed on internal discussions, many of whom requested anonymity to speak candidly. For weeks, Trump has sought an exit ramp from the shutdown that would still secure wall funding, and for weeks his advisers failed to identify a viable one.

A minority of the US public supports Trump’s plan to erect a wall on the southern border with Mexico, and Trump’s average disapproval rating spiked during the shutdown from 52% to 56%. Critics of the border wall plan say it would be a waste of money to address a problem the president grossly exaggerates and which in any case would be better addressed by spending on a combination of technology and personnel. Trump campaigned for the White House on a promise to build the wall and have Mexico pay for it. He has claimed a new trade deal will produce sufficient savings to meet the second half of his promise. Most analysts doubt it.