Congress returns this week
Lawmakers will have to cope with how to fund the government
To fund a wall, or not to fund a wall? That is the question President Donald Trump and White House officials can’t seem to answer clearly.
After Trump told a group of conservative reporters Monday evening that he wasn’t fixated on getting funding for his border wall in the current budget negotiations, White House officials insisted Tuesday that Trump was not backing down on securing funding for the border wall in the FY 2017 budget that must get through Congress on Friday to avoid a government shutdown.
“It’s not off the table,” White House deputy press secretary Lindsay Walters said. “We’re not pushing anything to FY ’18.”
Donald Trump's rise
That came after a White House official on Monday night told CNN that Trump wouldn’t insist on funding for the border wall in order to keep the government running past Friday. Broader funding for “border security” could satisfy the President’s demands, the official said, with the expectation that wall funding would come in future spending bill negotiations.
“Politics is the art of compromise,” the official said.
The marching orders changed by Tuesday morning, with multiple White House officials scrambling to tell reporters the border wall was not off the table for the current budget negotiations – reviving the notion of a potential poison pill that could lead to a government shutdown. Democrats have been adamant about not funding Trump’s border wall in the current budget negotiations.
Those orders changed as Trump was upset by news reports suggesting he was backing off his campaign promise to build a border wall, a senior administration official said.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer tweeted Monday night that it was “good for the US that @POTUS is taking the wall off the table in negotiations.”
Trump quickly sought to dispel that notion in a tweet Tuesday morning.
“Don’t let the fake media tell you that I have changed my position on the WALL. It will get built and help stop drugs, human trafficking etc.,” Trump tweeted.
Still, Trump’s tweet did not address the issue of funding for the border wall in the current budgeting process that, if unsuccessful, would trigger a government shutdown on Trump’s 100th day in office.
A senior administration official said Trump was unlikely to allow a government shutdown over funding for his border wall and said they believed Trump would ultimately accept money for border security in general for the coming budget.
The mixed signals from the White House just days before the critical government funding deadline did not just develop Tuesday morning after Trump’s comments to a group of conservative reporters the previous evening.
Trump himself muddied the waters in recent days by adding a return to health care reform to the legislative docket, and promised a “big announcement” on tax reform during the week leading up to the crucial budget deadline and, coincidentally, the 100-day marker of his presidency.
And top White House officials failed to send one clear and consistent message as they made the rounds of the Sunday news shows as to whether the budget bill needed funding for the border wall to earn Trump’s signature.
The result has been an uncertain strategy that is reflective of the political reality a White House with few legislative accomplishments faces as it nears the end of the first 100-day grading period to both make good on campaign promises and avoid a politically damaging government shutdown.
“They’re feeling their way forward,” former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who is close to Trump and top White House aides, told CNN on Monday. “One of the lessons they learned out of the health bill is to be cautious and not try and run straight into a wall.”
On Sunday, White House chief of staff Reince Priebus said Trump expects his “priorities” – military and border security spending increases – to be included in the budget bill, but focused on the White House’s flexibility in arriving at a deal to keep the government open.
“As long as the President’s priorities are adequately reflected in the (continuing resolution) and it allows us to get moving with an increase in military spending and a rebuilding of our military as he promised in one of your bullet points, and there’s enough as far as flexibility for the border wall and border security, I think we’ll be OK with that,” Priebus said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
But other top aides the same day focused instead on funding for the border wall – not just on border security overall.
“I can’t imagine the Democrats would shut down the government over an objection to building a down payment on a wall that can end the lawlessness,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said on ABC’s “This Week,” suggesting Democrats – not Trump and Republicans – should catch the blame for a government shutdown over border wall funding.
“It will help us complete the promise that the President has made to the American people. That’s what they want. The American people, they have a right to expect it,” Sessions added.
Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly said he suspected Trump would be “insistent on the funding” for the border wall. The White House budget director, Mick Mulvaney, echoed Trump’s comment from a Friday interview: “We don’t know yet.”
Health care, tax reform
The mixed messaging continued on health care, where Priebus and Mulvaney continued to push for a vote to repeal and replace Obamacare, days after Trump told reporters “it doesn’t matter” if a vote comes to fruition this week. A day before that, Trump said he wanted “both” health care reform and a budget bill the same week.
Privately, senior administration officials over the weekend said the pressure to rush for a vote on health care had subsided and that the White House’s priorities were realigning with those on Capitol Hill: to pass a budget bill and keep the government open.
The White House also scrambled to temper expectations over the weekend after Trump on Friday promised a “big announcement” on tax reform this week, which aides said would simply outline the administration’s “broad principles and priorities” – broad strokes Trump already laid out during his campaign.
Both the health care push and tax reform announcement pose a risk to the White House’s efforts to work with Congress to pass a budget bill by the end of the week by fracturing the attention of members on Capitol Hill and adding unknown variables to an already messy equation.
As the West Wing embarks on the final sprint to the 100-day marker of Trump’s presidency, top aides were thrown into the familiar pattern of rushing to match action to the President’s words while publicly avoiding words that could box in a President who prides himself on remaining “flexible.”
But while negotiations over an Obamacare replacement have played out in public, Trump and his aides have been more cautious in drawing clear lines on its demands for a budget bill that could pass muster.
Pressed repeatedly on Monday about whether Trump would sign off on a budget that leaves out funding for the border wall, White House press secretary Sean Spicer demurred.
“I don’t want to get ahead of those negotiations. They are ongoing,” Spicer said.
CNN’s Jim Acosta contributed to this report.