For a few hours, it looked like the foundations of Donald Trump’s presidency were crumbling in plain sight.
Trump has put on such a show of neck-whipping drama and barely believable controversy that it’s tough to identify his worst day in office.
But history could come to see Friday – when the President plunged to a humiliating defeat in the partial government shutdown and an FBI team sent by Robert Mueller swooped down on his political sorcerer Roger Stone – as a turning point.
It was a day when multiple strands of Trump’s political life converged, from questions about the methods he used to win power – which spawned the Russia probe – to the unorthodox manner in which he wields it, which increasingly seems to be leading him into futile political corners.
His attempts to rebound will be complicated by serious blows to his political persona.
Trump’s image, meticulously crafted over decades, as the self-styled master of the art of the deal, absorbed a severe dent as he crawled away from a 35-day government shutdown with nothing.
His capitulation came as disarray in the air traffic control system conjured nightmare visions of a nation spinning out of control and spiked political pressure that finally broke the President’s resistance. Airports snarled included LaGuardia, which is home to Trump’s branded personal airliner.
Trump’s decision to fully reopen the government without securing money for his wall alienated his cheerleaders in the right-wing media and threatened to inflict the first real damage on his almost mystical connection with his base.
He did what he said he would never do, agreeing to reopen the government for three weeks to allow time for border security negotiations with the Democrats. His chances of getting them to fund a wall seem as remote as ever.
The President was up early on Saturday, trying to repair the damage.
“21 days goes very quickly. Negotiations with Democrats will start immediately. Will not be easy to make a deal, both parties very dug in. The case for National Security has been greatly enhanced by what has been happening at the Border & through dialogue. We will build the Wall!” Trump tweeted.
But the President’s climbdown handed a victory to new House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in an epic confrontation that could set the tone for the next two years and augurs ill for his capacity to fight off what is shaping up as a punishing investigative and oversight operation.
The debacle also called into question the President’s political methodology of gut calls, bullying tactics and improvisation – since it led him into a disastrous situation from which there was no exit without suffering a huge embarrassment.
Friday was also the day when the border wall – the galvanizing symbol that built a bond with Trump’s grassroots supporters and may have swept him to power – was exposed as a political vulnerability since it may be an undeliverable promise.
The Russia cloud that has enveloped Trump every day of his presidency darkened further.
Though Stone was not specifically charged with cooperating with the Russian election-interference effort, the indictment appeared to suck Trump closer to a possible conspiracy on multiple fronts to taint the integrity of the 2016 election.
And it left his defense – the mantra of “no collusion” that has been repeated so often that it has become an empty cliche – looking more hollow than ever.
At the end of a disastrous day, one Trump adviser told CNN’s Jim Acosta, “The White House is walking in a valley tonight.”
Another said: “I miss winning.”
Trying to spin a win from a loss
The most shocking thing about Trump’s statement announcing the end of the shutdown was how diminished the President seemed.
He appeared to acknowledge his weakness later in a tweet he posted after absorbing the unflattering TV news coverage of his climbdown.
“I wish people would read or listen to my words on the Border Wall. This was in no way a concession,” he insisted.
Hours before, aides had clapped as Trump entered the Rose Garden, often a setting reserved for grand presidential victory laps.
The man who bills himself as the ultimate winner was forced to disguise the most humbling loss of his two years in power.
“Thank you very much, my fellow Americans. I am proud to announce today that we have reached a deal to end the shutdown and reopen the federal government,” Trump said.
But there was no mistaking what really happened.
“We will not Cave!” Trump had tweeted on Wednesday, two days before doing exactly that, on the very terms Democrats had demanded.
The President triggered the shutdown in December because he was determined to get his wall. He repeatedly said the shutdown would not end until he got it. But he was forced to back down. And there is no wall.
The temporary “deal” to reopen the government had been available to him at any point over the last five weeks.
Only on Thursday, the White House had warned there would be no short-term fix without a “large down payment” on the wall.
That was another line in the sand quickly washed away.
Trump’s surrender is sure to leave psychological ripples in Washington that could surface next time he is in a pitched battle with Democrats.
And it was an awakening into the reality of divided government.
“Hopefully now the President has learned his lesson,” said one of Trump’s chief antagonists, Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer.
Only time will tell just how deeply Trump has been damaged by the last few days. But so much of the presidency relies on the perception that the man in the Oval Office is all powerful and can use the mythology of his office to change the political winds.
“If he gives in now, that’s the end of 2019 in terms of him being an effective President,” Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Trump ally, said on Fox News earlier this month. “That’s probably the end of his presidency.”
Graham is known for hyperbole. But his comment encapsulates the challenge that the President now has in battling to regain his authority.
If nothing else, a President who may one day face impeachment must have been perturbed by the desertions of six Republican senators who voted with Democrats to reopen the government on Thursday – taking care of their own political interests rather than those of the President.
Trump ‘lost a lot’
Other Presidents have come back from defeats that sapped their power. But to do so requires political suppleness that, after the last month, it is not clear Trump possesses despite his determination never to back down from a fight.
“He lost a lot here,” said Kevin Madden, a former senior aide to Republican Mitt Romney’s presidential campaigns.
“He lost a critical amount of leverage. Nancy Pelosi now knows exactly when he will cave and where his pain points are,” Madden said on CNN’s “The Lead with Jake Tapper.” “He may have lost the faith of some of his strongest supporters previously on Capitol Hill.”
The President could find himself right back in his political box with the same grim choices in three weeks if talks with Democrats do not yield funds he can spin as money for his wall.
He noted on Friday that he had not used “a very powerful alternative” – namely a declaration of a national emergency on the southern border – to divert money from other programs to build the wall.
But such a move could be tied up in the courts for months as it would raise serious constitutional questions related to the prerogative of Congress to decide how taxpayer money is spent.
Still, it might be the only face-saving way for Trump to get out of the box he created for himself, given that even he may balk at setting off yet another shutdown.
Pelosi, already gearing up for the next fight, took pains not to gloat on Friday and declined to comment on the conventional wisdom that the President had underestimated her political skills.
But she could bask in the glow of the best day for Democrats since the President’s shocking election victory in 2016.
Her win not only solidified her position relative to Trump, but it also is likely to further cement her control of her own caucus following attempts by some younger Democrats to prevent her from reclaiming the speaker’s gavel.
Echoes of Nixon
Indictments and arrests of Trump associates have become so frequent that they almost fail to shock.
On Friday, the President’s already jailed former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, was in court in Washington. Stone, meanwhile, stood handcuffed before a judge in Florida.
Mueller alleged in the indictment that Stone had sought stolen emails from WikiLeaks that could damage Trump’s 2016 election opponents while in coordination with senior Trump campaign officials.
Trump was quick to pounce on the fact that, though Mueller charged Stone with obstruction and false statements, the special counsel did not accuse him of conspiring with Russia’s intelligence agencies, which used WikiLeaks to publish emails it has stolen from the Hillary Clinton campaign.
“Greatest Witch Hunt in the History of our Country! NO COLLUSION!” Trump tweeted.
But the indictment could contain great peril for the President.
At one point, Mueller alleges that “a senior Trump campaign official was directed to contact Stone” about additional releases from WikiLeaks.
In an interview with CNN, White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders refused to say whether the person who gave that order was Trump.
The unresolved question is another one of Mueller’s characteristic breadcrumbs sprinkled throughout the investigation that hint at potential trouble for the President when the special counsel compiles his final report.
Yet again, Mueller’s latest filings painted a picture of a campaign open even to underhanded methods to influence the 2016 election.
If there was any comfort for the President to take on Friday, it may have come in Stone’s defiance, as the longtime political operative was adamant he would not follow the path of other associates who have turned on the President in plea deals.
“There is no circumstance whatsoever under which I will bear false witness against the President, nor will I make up lies to ease the pressure on myself,” Stone said on the steps of the courthouse.
Trump, as an aficionado of chaos and spectacle, might have admired the circus atmosphere around Stone after his hearing.
As he appeared before the assembled crowd in front of the courthouse, the political trickster raised both arms high with his fingers in a “V for Victory” sign popularized by his political hero.
Yet his reminder of the iconic photograph of Richard Nixon boarding Marine One after leaving the White House in disgrace was hardly the best omen for the current President on one of his darkest days.