Donald Trump is losing badly in the government shutdown battle, and that scares the hell out of me. I don’t see any viable, face-saving way out of this self-inflicted crisis for Trump, and that scares me even more.
Here’s where we are: Trump has invented an emergency in which no one really believes. (Remember the caravan? And the Middle Easterners? Did the invasion ever begin? Any casualties other than the kids who died in understaffed and ill-prepared border-patrol custody?)
And to fix the nonexistent emergency at the border — yes, there’s a problem at the border of long standing, but not an emergency — he is proposing the same build-a-wall solution he has been proposing for years, except it’s now made of steel instead of concrete. Either way, more than half the country believes the wall — which Mexico was supposed to pay for — is somewhere between unnecessary and ridiculous.
As of Tuesday, the parties were at a standstill. By Wednesday, following Trump’s poorly-received Oval Office speech, matters got worse. Much worse, even though Trump apparently tried to make nice by beginning his Wednesday meeting with Congressional leaders by passing out candy. CNN reports that at least one Butterfinger bar was in evidence.
The sweetness apparently ended there, though. Here’s an account I’ve pieced together after listening to several participants relate the events: Democrats asked why Trump couldn’t open the government and then negotiate about the wall. Trump then asked if he did that, would Democrats eventually agree on funding for a wall. Nancy Pelosi said, “No,” and then Trump walked out. Schumer said he slammed the table. Mike Pence said there was no slamming. All seem to agree he used the words “Bye, bye” and that Trump said the meeting was a waste of his time. Sadly, no mention from any of the participants about what happened to the remaining candy.
The thing is, presidential walkouts are not even close to being the worst-case scenario. I mean, TSA workers are already doing a sick-out. But, as you know, Trump is threatening to declare a national emergency in order to build the wall without congressional approval, thereby attempting to solve an emergency that doesn’t exist with a solution that wouldn’t work and meanwhile causing a constitutional crisis — which, I confess, I’ve long thought was coming. For those keeping score, that would count as the pre-Mueller-report constitutional crisis, or, as one friend wrote, the next-to-last constitutional crisis of Trump’s (two-year) administration.
Could Trump get away with that? It would be a way to re-open the government, although the matter would certainly wind up in court. As we’ve learned, presidents do have wide powers in case of an emergency, but what if you declare an emergency when there isn’t one? Who gets to decide when it’s an emergency and when it’s a power grab? For Trump, the benefit would be he could re-open the government while the courts take months, even years, to decide the issue. The risk, of course, is that meanwhile democracy dies.
We got a hint Wednesday when Trump was asked by a reporter what his “threshold” was for declaring a national emergency. Trump was — shock —apparently unprepared for the question and answered it this way: that declaring a national emergency was his fallback position.
“My threshold will be if I can’t make a deal with people that are unreasonable,” Trump said. Of course, if we build a wall every time someone is unreasonable in Washington, the Great Wall of China would have to be the fallback position.
In defending the idea of the wall, Trump fired back at Democrats who had called the wall medieval-era technology. “They say it’s a medieval solution, a wall. It’s true, because it worked then and it works even better now,” Trump said, as we waited for him to move on to catapults and moats.
There are other options. Someone could give in. Except that the Democrats won’t and Trump can’t — the base in either case would revolt. Or Trump could try to trade the future of the DACA kids for the wall, which Democrats once proposed and which he rejected. I doubt if Democrats, who are winning the battle of the polls, would make that deal again. And if Trump did agree to the deal, he’d get the same blowback from Fox, Coulter, Rush et al.
So, he could …
Well, I hope it’s not another Oval Office TV appearance, which I guarantee didn’t change anyone’s mind. Presidents speak to the country from the Oval Office only in true emergencies. In Trump’s brief but lie-filled speech, delivered in his teleprompter-style monotone, he attempted to turn wall-funding into a humanitarian venture, even reading the lines that this is “a crisis of the heart, and a crisis of the soul.”
At that point, the viewer had two options — throw up a little in your mouth or laugh out loud. The kids-in-cages guy is going the humanitarian route. Trump must have believed that Pelosi and Schumer would be moved by his sudden attention to the children. In any case, Trump was fortunate that the Democratic response to the president, given jointly by Pelosi and Schumer while sharing a podium, was just as low energy as Trump’s speech. On Twitter, the scene was being compared to Grant Wood’s American Gothic, although, to be fair, the Dem response apparently got better ratings than Trump did.
That ratings thing must drive Trump crazy, but not as crazy as the fact of his reputed deal-making skills being so exposed. And, let’s be honest, after the candy-passing/walkout fiasco, Trump has no real idea what to do next — and that may be the scariest thing yet.