President Donald Trump often boasts he’s presiding over a record breaking presidency.
Now he’s got another historic notch on his belt, the longest-ever government shutdown — an impasse that marks a new low for Washington dysfunction.
The dispute triggered by Trump’s demands for billions of dollars to finally make good on an unfulfilled campaign promise — to build a border wall — began so long ago that Republicans had a monopoly on Washington power. The Democratic takeover of the House has deepened the disconnect, and with neither side willing to fold, nearly 22 days in, there is still no end in sight.
Since Trump crowed he would be “proud” to shutter the government over the wall, he gets to shoulder much of the blame for a crisis that is the inevitable result when the nation’s political polarization is institutionalized in Washington.
The last three weeks have exposed the lack of empathy of a billionaire President who shrugs off the struggles of federal workers who work paycheck to paycheck. Trump is clearly more concerned about a pet political project than his constitutional role of providing governance to all Americans.
But he is not alone in his dereliction of duty. The Republican-led Senate is doing nothing to offer its President a face saving way out. And while House Democrats are going through the motions of passing bills to reopen government, they don’t seem to be doing much else to break the logjam. Before Trump was President, party leaders had seemed at least open to funding a barrier on the border as part of wider immigration legislation.
Trump urged party leaders Friday to return to Washington and vote for a wall, a barrier or whatever they want to call it – even “peaches.”
“This is where I ask the Democrats to come back to Washington and to vote for money for the wall, the barrier, whatever you want to call it, it’s OK with me,” the President said during a White House roundtable on immigration.
“They can name it whatever. They can name it ‘peaches.’ I don’t care what they name it. But we need money for that barrier,” he added.
The stalemate represents a crucial first fight between Trump and his Democratic enemies in Washington’s new era of divided government.
But every battle has victims. And right now it’s 800,000 government workers who feel insulted, forgotten and anxious about rent, mortgage, car payment and medical bills piling up.
While they fret, nothing is happening in Washington this weekend. In fact, members of Congress, who are getting paid, are off until Monday.
They might notice as they fly home that the nation’s transportation system is under strain. Many of those TSA agents who keep travelers safe are working without pay. An airport in Tampa is opening a food bank for employees. And some food inspections are on hold with government shut down.
“I would beg both Houses of Congress, I would beg the American people to please look around and understand that federal workers, we have a face — we have families,” Jacqueline Maloney, a federal worker whose paycheck didn’t arrive on Friday, told CNN’s Brooke Baldwin in an emotional interview.
“We might be a neighbor, your best friend, your best friend’s mom, your aunt, your cousin. We are everywhere.”
Government shutdowns usually end when the political leaders caught in the standoff calculate that the political damage sustained by standing firm begins to outweigh the embarrassment of a climbdown.
With tales of anger and deprivation of government workers stuck in a terrible situation beyond their control now dominating news coverage, that point may be coming closer.
Neither side however is showing any sign of cracking yet.
It’s on Trump
But for Trump, there would have been no shutdown. The President, apparently fearing a backlash in conservative media, refused to keep the government open before Christmas unless he got wall funding.
In the last week, Trump has tried a variety of political stunts to try to shift the blame. He gave an Oval Office address. He stormed out of talks with Democratic leaders. He flew Air Force One to the border to paint an inaccurate picture of hordes of criminals and killers pouring into the country.
“The only way you will stop it is with a very powerful wall or steel barrier,” Trump said at the White House on Friday.
Now, as he seeks taxpayer cash to build a wall that he promised Mexico would pay for, the President is offering the fact-bending claims that America’s neighbor has already settled up – in a yet to be ratified new trade deal.
By any conventional measure, Trump is guilty of putting his own political ego above the interests of the Americans he leads. For all the power of his campaign trail rhetoric among supporters, he’s not shifted the political needle at all. He seems oblivious that in divided government, a President can’t just demand what he wants.
Trump’s supporters argue that there is a genuine crisis on the border and brand as “fake news” any argument that a wall along the frontier with Mexico may not be the best way to tackle drug trafficking and ballooning asylum claims.
In fact, the wall has become such an emotional center of Trump’s relationship with his political base — and such a symbol of antipathy towards the President for those who oppose him — that it’s become an insoluble issue.
And government workers are paying the price.
“The bottom line is there is no excuse for the political stunt just because the President had made a commitment when he ran for office and afterwards,” said Michael Bloomberg, the former New York mayor, in a CNN interview.
“He cannot get it done and deliver for his constituency. He should just stand up and say I tried and let’s get on with the next thing,” said Bloomberg, a possible 2020 Democratic presidential candidate. “There’s no one issue or one constituency. The President has not been elected to be the representative of a party, or of a small group, he’s supposed to be representative of a whole country.”
So far, Trump has held off on his threat to declare a national emergency and reprogram Pentagon funds — possibly from disaster relief projects in Puerto Rico and Texas — to finance his wall.
Such a step might allow him to declare a victory that most people will believe to be hollow. He might be able to sell his supporters on a battle in the courts after an almost certain legal challenge and reap political capital.
But it would also represent a fundamental flouting of constitutional governance, since a future president, thwarted by Congress fulfilling its core task of deciding how taxpayer money is spent, could choose to go ahead with a favorite political project regardless.
The failure of Congress to unpick the deadlock has disgusted some of its most venerable members.
“How can we resolve this? We owe it to the American people. This is like a circus,” Republican Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama said earlier in the week.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who once boasted that “I’m the guy that gets us out of shutdowns,” has been a ghostly presence.
McConnell has refused to act on Democratic House bills to open various government agencies, since Trump will not agree to sign them.
For now, McConnell has no desire to open cracks in the Republican coalition by breaking with a President who has leveraged his devoted base to punish any dissidents in his party.
There could come a time, however, when clear discomfort among some GOP members, like Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner, Alaska’s Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Maine’s Sen. Susan Collins, begins to make life uncomfortable for McConnell.
The bitterness of shutdown politics has also revealed a seam of hypocrisy that festers on both sides of the aisle in this fractured political age.
In 2016, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham signed on to an amicus brief in a Supreme Court case challenging President Barack Obama’s use of executive power to shield recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program from deportation.
The document complained that Obama’s move was an attempt to supplant Congress’ power and a threat to the constitutional principle of separation of powers. Those norms seem less important to the South Carolinian now Trump is in the White House.
“Mr. President, Declare a national emergency NOW. Build a wall NOW,” Graham tweeted on Friday after meeting Trump.
Part of Graham’s frustration stems from his belief that Democrats are hypocrites for refusing to contemplate immigration enforcement policies that they have favored in the past.
Early last year, Democrats and the White House appeared close to a deal that would have given Trump $25 billion in border security in return for a path to citizenship for DACA recipients — undocumented migrants brought to the US illegally as children.
Trump eventually pulled out of the deal.
The idea of border fencing, or a wall in some areas, has not been so radioactive for Democrats in the past.
In 2006, Democrats including now-Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and then-Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama voted to authorize a secure fence along about 700 miles of the US-Mexico border.
The project was far from the concrete or steel wall envisioned by Trump.