Trump the dealmaker comes up short ahead of government shutdown

2018-01-21 16:50
US President Donald Trump  (Evan Vucci, AP)

US President Donald Trump (Evan Vucci, AP)

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Washington — He wrote a book on the art of negotiation and was elected to office claiming he alone could end Washington gridlock, but President Donald Trump's latest attempt to broker a big, bipartisan deal has turned into a big mess.

The failure to find consensus on immigration and spending is a blow to Trump's presidency on the anniversary of his inauguration — and perhaps more painfully, a blow to his brand as a wheeler-dealer. The funding feud, which led to a government shutdown at midnight Friday, is the second time Trump has dived into a negotiation and come up short on a top priority. As with failed talks about overhauling the nation's health system, Trump has again slammed into the difficulties of Washington's particular mix of tricky politics and complex policy.

"Negotiating in politics is a lot different than real estate," said GOP strategist Alex Conant. "In Washington, not everybody wants to make a deal. Trump's initial premise that politicians just needed to be prodded more to make a deal was always flawed. Nobody runs for Congress because they want to compromise their principles. They want to advance their agendas."

Democrats' agenda, in this case, is chiefly protection for the 700 000 young immigrants who may face deportation when the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program expires in March. Republicans are seeking more time to talk and a long-term funding bill that would provide the Pentagon with major increases.

It's not been entirely clear what the president's agenda is. Over the past few weeks, he has expressed openness to extending the DACA program, but then rejected a bipartisan plan on that front. He fired off a tweet that appeared to reject the GOP plan for a short-term funding bill that would buy time for more negotiation, but the White House walked it back. He abruptly tried to cut a broad deal with Sen. Chuck Schumer, the Democratic leader and a fellow New Yorker, and then backed off.

"I'm looking for something that President Trump supports," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, told reporters on Wednesday, two days before the shutdown deadline. "And he's not yet indicated what measure he's willing to sign. As soon as we figure out what he is for, then I would be convinced that we were not just spinning our wheels going to this issue on the floor, but actually dealing with a bill that has a chance to become law and therefore solve the problem."

‘Like negotiating with Jell-O’

Democrats have been less diplomatic: "Negotiating with President Trump is like negotiating with Jell-O," Schumer said on Saturday, gleefully recounting what he claimed was a blow-by-blow account of Trump's failed efforts to avert a shutdown.

The White House doesn't necessarily view the confusion as a problem.

In his most notable work, "The Art of the Deal," Trump boasted of his fickleness as a negotiator, describing it as a strategy. "I never get too attached to one deal or one approach. For starters, I keep a lot of balls in the air because most deals fall out, no matter how promising they seem at first."

A White House official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private deliberations, said the White House prefers to keep the government open, but sees potential political upside in Democratic "overreach." Trump's team sees the shutdown as an example of the president's commitment to tough negotiation and believes Democrats will cave in, the official said.

It is a familiar sentiment for presidents stuck in crises with Congress. During the 2013 shutdown, President Barack Obama predicted the confrontation would "break the fever" driving Republican opposition — ultimately to no avail.

Who bears the blame for the current debacle is difficult to predict. Some Republican critics of Trump said he might emerge with his reputation intact should Democrats bear the brunt of the blame. "It's pretty clear Senator Schumer wasn't going to be able to get to 'yes,'" said Mike Steel, a former aide to Republican House Speakers John Boehner and Paul Ryan.

And many of Trump's core supporters aren't particularly interested in compromise. "He was elected for the 46 percent who voted for him," says William Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who worked in the Clinton administration. "He was a mould-breaker who wouldn't cow to conventional opinion."

But Trump, himself, has suggested he should be on the hook for the impasse.

In 2013, when he criticized Obama over another shutdown mess, he said: "Well, if you say who gets fired it always has to be the top. I mean, problems start from the top and they have to get solved from the top and the president's the leader. And he's got to get everybody in a room and he's got to lead."


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