The Sheer Force of His Mighty Will

Perhaps it was a negotiating tactic but it didn’t seem like one:

Talks between President Trump and congressional Democrats aimed at ending the partial government shutdown collapsed in acrimony and disarray Wednesday, with the president walking out of the White House meeting and calling it “a total waste of time” after Democrats rejected his demand for border-wall funding.

Furious Democrats accused Trump of slamming his hand on the table before he exited, and they said he ignored their pleas to reopen the federal government as they continue to negotiate over his border wall demands. With the shutdown nearing the three-week mark, some 800,000 workers are about to miss their first paycheck.

And that was that. The government will stay shut down until the Democrats give him every penny he asked for, for the big wall to keep the bad folks out of this country. He will accept nothing else. That’s it – and the pain that the shutdown is causing is on them – not him. He expects total capitulation, humiliating them. One day they will capitulate and accept their humiliation. He’ll wait. He’s got all the time in the world.

The Democrats tried to shift the talk to all the people hurt by the shutdown:

“He thinks maybe they could just ask their father for more money. But they can’t,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), an implicit dig at Trump’s wealthy upbringing.

That was meant as a dig, but whose fault is it that these folks aren’t rich? That kind of talk doesn’t bother the Trump base one bit. These folks are losers, but the main issue was this:

“Well unfortunately, the president just got up and walked out,” said Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.). “He asked Speaker Pelosi, ‘Will you agree to my wall?’ She said no. And he just got up and said, ‘Then we have nothing to discuss’ and he just walked out.”

That was the idea. She wanted to talk this out. Donald Trump does not talk anything out:

Trump himself tweeted: “Just left a meeting with Chuck and Nancy, a total waste of time. I asked what is going to happen in 30 days if I quickly open things up, are you going to approve Border Security which includes a Wall or Steel Barrier? Nancy said, NO. I said bye-bye, nothing else works!”

Can we discuss this? No. And that’s the Art of the Deal, although others tried to make it more complicated than that:

After the White House meeting broke up in startling fashion, Republican and Democratic officials took turns addressing reporters at the White House and on Capitol Hill, trading blame and accusing each other of mischaracterizing the meeting and being intransigent.

“The president walked into the room and passed out candy,” Vice President Pence said. “I don’t recall him ever raising his voice or slamming his hand.”

Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) said later that the candy distributed was Baby Ruth bars, M&M’s and Butterfinger bars.

But Schumer told reporters upon returning to the Capitol: “It was an amazing meeting. The president threw another temper tantrum, slammed the table and walked out.”

“It wasn’t even a high-stakes negotiation,” Pelosi said. “It was a petulant president of the United States.”

No, it was the line from that movie – “I’m right and you’re wrong, I’m big and you’re small, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

But nothing is simple:

The breakdown at the White House occurred shortly after the president dug in defiantly at a private meeting with Senate Republicans, attempting to rally GOP senators to his side even as he faced skepticism from a few lawmakers.

“There was no discussion of anything other than solidarity,” Trump told reporters after meeting with GOP senators.

That was not what happened at that lunch meeting:

Moderate Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) pleaded with Trump to reopen the government, according to lawmakers present. Trump said he was doing everything he could – but that he wouldn’t end the standoff by taking nothing, according to two people familiar with the exchange who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the private discussion.

He wanted to talk about something else:

During the lunch, Trump talked about a subject he brings up often – winning, according to a person in the room who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the private meeting. His main message, according to this person, was that Republicans needed to stick together in the border security fight, and that they could lose if they don’t.

That didn’t work:

After the meeting, Murkowski told reporters: “I shared my support for the need for border security in the country and what we should do from a humanitarian perspective, but some recognition that when the government is shut down there are consequences and people are starting to feel those consequences.”

Collins urged Trump to consider a previous deal she was a part of that would trade $25 billion for the wall for permanent protections for undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children. Trump dismissed that idea.

This is not solidarity, nor is this:

A group of Senate Republicans met privately late Wednesday afternoon with Jared Kushner, senior White House adviser and presidential son-in-law, and legislative director Shahira Knight on Capitol Hill. Senators left the meeting saying they were trying to find a way out of the shutdown by devising an agreement involving border security, but no decisions were reached. Democrats did not attend the meeting.

This was not going well:

GOP unity behind Trump faced a fresh test Wednesday afternoon, when House Democrats held a vote to reopen the Treasury Department, legislation that would fund the Internal Revenue Service at a time when millions of taxpayers are filing their 2018 returns.

Trump has said he would not sign any legislation to reopen the government unless it contains the wall money he wants, and Senate Majority Leader McConnell has made clear he won’t bring up any bill that does not have the president’s support.

This is a stalemate, and David Nakamura and Seung Min Kim see this:

President Trump has long said that keeping opponents off balance is the best way to win a negotiation. But nearly three weeks into a partial government shutdown, his usual playbook doesn’t seem to be working.

In his fight for a section of border wall, the president has dispatched aides to negotiate with lawmakers only to undercut their offers. He has declared a “crisis” at the U.S.-Mexico border but abruptly dropped a talking point about an influx of terrorists after it was proved false. And he has vacillated between threatening to declare a national emergency and professing to prefer a negotiated deal with Democrats.

And he hasn’t won anything:

Trump’s approach is a hallmark of a president who eschews strategic planning and preparation in favor of day-to-day tactical maneuvering and trusting his gut. But as he digs in against an emboldened Democratic opposition, Trump has found that his go-to arsenal of bluster, falsehoods, threats and theatrics has laid bare his shortcomings as a negotiator – preventing him from finding a way out of what may be the biggest political crisis of his presidency.

“Doesn’t the president do everything ad hoc? He’s a gut politician,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates lower immigration levels. “He’s gotten out of boxes before, but this one is a zero-sum game. There are obvious resolutions on policy, but this is more of a political fight. Trump needs to say he got a win.”

Yet what a win looks like, and how he intends to get there, remains cloudy.

And that becomes more difficult by the hour:

Some moderate rank-and-file Republicans have signaled they would support reopening the government. A union representing Customs and Border Protection officers has sued the administration on behalf of federal workers who have not been paid. And news reports of airport delays, potential disruptions to food stamp assistance and a freeze on some government travel have prompted the administration to patch together temporary solutions…

With a lack of clarity from the White House, anxious Republicans say they are unsure what Trump would accept to end the standoff, while skeptical Democrats express doubt that the president can be trusted to stick with any deal he makes.

This will not end well:

Against that backdrop, Trump told reporters Wednesday that many of the 800,000 furloughed federal workers “are on my side.” In the end, he said, they would be paid and are “going to be happy.”

But in a sign that he has grown less confident of his standing, Trump insisted: “This is not a fight I wanted.” It was a remarkable assertion from a president who declared in a televised Oval Office meeting with Democratic leaders in mid-December that he would be “proud” to shut down the government for border security and would not blame them for it.

White House allies professed confusion over the president’s tactics. Trump aides initially signaled he would support a continuing resolution from Congress to fund the government through early February, but the president reversed course in the face of intense criticism from conservative talk show hosts and border hawks.

Who knows what will happen next? David Frum might know:

President Donald Trump is about to discover the reverse side of Richard Neustadt’s famous observation that the most important presidential power is the power to persuade. Trump’s conduct as candidate and president long ago deprived him of any power to persuade anyone not already predisposed to support him. To date, Trump has governed by leveraging his high approval rating within the Republican Party. From the point of view of former Speaker Paul Ryan and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Trump’s 90 percent approval rating among Republicans mattered a lot more than his 39 percent approval rating among Americans in general.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is not susceptible to that “majority of the minority” logic. What she has to worry about is Trump’s strength among Democratic-leaning voters. That strength, Trump squandered long ago.

It may be that Trump has already lost:

There is a real immigration problem on the border. Central American migrants have figured out that by showing up at the border in family units, they will be admitted into the country pending the adjudication of an asylum claim. The asylum system is overwhelmed, adjudications take months or years – and long before then, the would-be migrants can vanish into the U.S. labor market. Few Central Americans prevail in their asylum claims. Almost all end up staying, anyway.

The solution to that problem is not a lengthy process of design, tendering, land expropriation, grading, and construction. The solution is to get more adjudicators into the asylum system now. If cases are resolved fast, and border-crossers removed promptly, the surge of asylum seekers will abate, as it abated in 2015 after the Barack Obama administration cracked down on the 2014 Central American border surge.

But Trump has never wanted a solution. He has wanted a divisive issue and a personal monument.

But that wasn’t to be:

Futile though that monument may be, he could have gotten it, too, had he been willing to trade something attractive to Democrats. But Trump was never willing to bargain. Senate Republicans would not let him: They saw no point in the border wall, and were unwilling to barter for it.

More fatefully, though, Trump’s vision of leadership allows no room for bartering. He imagines the presidency to operate on the principle, “I command; you obey.” More even than his wall, he wanted to coerce the Democrats into a surrender by the sheer force of his mighty will. Except Trump did not have the clout to achieve that.

And there’s another word for that:

“Leverage: don’t make deals without it.” The words appeared under Donald Trump’s byline on page 55 of the 1987 best seller The Art of the Deal. Trump did not write them, and he seems not to have understood how to apply them. In this budget shutdown, Trump discarded his leverage from the very start, by declaring for the cameras that the budget shutdown was his decision, his responsibility. When the shutdown began to hurt, Trump and his surrogates hastily tried to transfer the onus – but it was too late. Everybody knew that it was Trump’s doing, and that it was done for reasons rejected by large majorities of Americans.

So this may be over:

After the January 8 Oval Office address, little doubt remains of how this shutdown will end. Sooner or later – probably sooner – it will end the way Trump’s threats of nuclear war upon North Korea ended: with a sudden Trump about-face. It is now only a matter of time. The polls will arrive… Democrats and Republicans will both see that Trump did not move public opinion in his favor. They might see that Trump could not even motivate very many Americans to watch him. The panic slowly building among congressional Republicans will boil. Trump, trapped without a decent exit in a predicament of his own making, will yield everything and get nothing.

And that leaves this:

Trump will cope by locking himself into the Fox News closed-feedback system of flattering disinformation, emerging only to emit enraged tweets pretending he won big and denouncing the media for reporting otherwise. He might even convince himself to believe it. His political allies will repeat it without believing it.

But he will have lost. Lost humiliatingly. And he will have done it almost entirely to himself, before the amazed eyes of the opponents who, dumbfounded, watched him do it to himself, without a plan or even much of a reason, other than the empty and fleeting joy of feeling briefly powerful by inflicting pain.

He is doing that. He can actually inflict massive pain. That seems to please him. That’s real power, but E. J. Dionne sees this:

President Trump’s “big, beautiful wall” was never a serious policy proposal. It was a symbol to reassure his supporters that he would keep the sorts of people they don’t like out of the country. It was also a memory device designed by his advisers to remind Trump to talk about immigration in every 2016 campaign speech.

But since Trump has absolutely no interest in policy, it is appropriate that he has shut down part of our government to defend a piece of rhetoric.

Trump, however, is fine with that:

Trump now loves this shutdown because it does four things for him:

It makes him the center of attention.

It tells members of his base that he is willing to stand up for the idol they adore.

It pushes aside inconvenient news – about the Russia probe, about the administration’s flipping and flopping on Syria, about the many administration posts that are empty.

And it creates the appearance that he is doing something when, in fact, he is doing nothing at all, except keeping large numbers of federal employees from carrying on and earning a living.

But all good things must come to an end:

Trump’s phony “crisis”-talk means he may have to call his own bluff. This is why there is a good chance he will invoke emergency powers to force the military to build the wall. The move would perfectly sum up his approach to government: It would look dramatic and “strong,” it would waste federal funds for self-aggrandizing reasons, and it would be an abuse of his authority, since the “emergency” in question is not an emergency at all.

No one thinks that’s a good idea:

Already, sane voices are proffering – for example, to give Trump some wall money in exchange for protecting the “dreamers,” undocumented immigrants brought to the United States by their parents when they were young.

The problem is that Trump has repeatedly rejected deals on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. And the same anti-immigrant voices that pushed Trump to shutter the government have put him on notice that they would see concessions of this sort as a sellout.

That is a problem:

Right-wing commentator Ann Coulter tweeted her spleen Sunday by referring to Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law thought to be interested in a deal, and Neville Chamberlain, the British prime minister famous for appeasing Hitler: “If Kushner (Trump) trades amnesty for a wall, history books will have to be pulled from the shelves to replace ‘Neville Chamberlain’ with ‘Donald Trump.'”

Trump is willing to keep hundreds of thousands of government workers idle and unpaid. He lacks the guts to stand up to Coulter and her allies.

What will change all this? Dionne suggests this:

The only path forward is for sensible souls to pressure McConnell and other Senate Republicans to stop enabling the blusterer in chief and put bills on Trump’s desk to reopen the government. Already, at least three Republican senators (with others titling that way) have said it’s time to do this. More should join them…

Yes, Republicans might humiliate Trump by forcing him to acknowledge that this whole business is a fool’s errand. But in doing so, they would be taking a step toward rehabilitating a party that has regularly abetted the depredations of a man who cares only about the spotlight and a totem he claimed Mexico, not American taxpayers, would finance.

Dionne expects too much of Republicans. It’s too late for that. Donald Trump, by the sheer force of his mighty will, and with his devastating tweets that end careers, has neutered almost every Republican. He won and they lost, but now Democrats have the House, and the idea of the sheer force of Trump’s mighty will makes them shrug, although some of them probably giggle. And they do not fear Trump’s Tweets of Death. Why would they? They’re not wayward Republicans.

So, Trump walked out of the one meeting that could have fixed things. He may have just walked out of his presidency.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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