President Donald Trump appears to be moving – unhappily – toward signing a bipartisan agreement that provides only a fraction of the money he demanded for a border wall. But in conversations with allies over the past days, he has griped that Republican negotiators were outplayed by their Democratic counterparts, securing a border funding number far smaller than Trump has spent the last two months demanding.
As a months-long government funding standoff appears to reach its conclusion, Trump has found his seat at the negotiating table diminished after his tactics failed to yield progress. For a candidate who campaigned as the consummate deal artist, it’s an unpleasant reminder that grand bipartisan compromises have so far evaded him.
The President’s own aides have worked behind the scenes to cast the outcome less as a concession and more as an opportunity. Trump himself has been only partly receptive to that characterization.
White House aides were still reviewing the legislative text of the bill – which stacked up to more than 1,000 pages – on Thursday, looking for any potential “landmines” that might cause the President to reject it.
“Reviewing the funding bill with my team at the @WhiteHouse!” Trump tweeted midday, after writing (and later deleting) a cryptic message reading only “funding bill.”
Trump has signaled to advisers and allies this week he was inclined to sign it to avoid another government shutdown, and would use executive action to attempt securing additional border wall dollars.
“I know the President is still evaluating the bill the conference committee has produced. I think he’s been very clear that he’s not happy with it, seeing less than $1.4 billion in border wall funding I know was a disappointment to the President,” Vice President Mike Pence told reporters on Thursday. Pence, who is attending national security conferences in Warsaw and Munich this week, said he’d spoken to the President regularly about the developments.
“I think the President’s evaluating what’s in the bill. He’s also evaluating the authority he has and I know he’ll be making a decision before the deadline,” Pence said.
In public, Trump has remained gracious about the GOP effort.
“I want to thank all Republicans for the work you have done in dealing with the Radical Left on Border Security,” he tweeted on Tuesday.
But privately, Trump has cast the GOP’s dealmaking efforts as inadequate and wondered why he, an experienced dealmaker, wasn’t consulted at more regular intervals as the two sides haggled over an agreement. The White House acted largely on the sidelines while congressional negotiators struck a deal.
That was intentional, according to people familiar with the process, who noted Trump’s attempts at brokering an agreement between lawmakers proved futile during the record-length government shutdown that ushered in the new year.
This time, the two sides proceeded without direct involvement from the administration, though did keep Trump’s aides updated as the talks progressed.
What resulted was an agreement that falls short not only of the President’s demands but of earlier efforts to strike a deal. The final dollar figure for the wall is lower than the $1.6 billion included in a December proposal that initially included Republican support but was rejected by the President.
Meanwhile, lawmakers have been left with no public assurance from Trump that he will sign the bill.
“I pray” Trump signs the bill, Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard Shelby told CNN Thursday. He said he spoke with Trump Wednesday night and the President was in “good spirits.” Shelby said he didn’t ask directly if Trump would sign it, but indications are that he will.
To appease the President, aides and some Republican lawmakers have cast the smaller figure, around $1.375 billion, as a down payment that will eventually lead to new wall construction.
Initially, Trump was distressed when he watched Sean Hannity and other Fox News hosts deride the plan, including as he watched recorded versions of prime-time programming during a late-night flight home on Monday from Texas, where he’d held a campaign rally.
Trump spent much of the flight phoning allies to seek counsel and bemoan what he viewed as the lackluster negotiating efforts by Republicans. Hannity, who the President often calls late at night after his show ends, cut away from the rally in El Paso Monday night to dismiss the breakthrough as a “garbage compromise.”
“1.3 billion? That’s not a – not even a wall, a barrier?” Hannity said. “Any Republican that supports this garbage compromise, you will have to explain. Look at this crowd. Look at the country. Look at CBS News, even they say 72% of the American people want the heroin to stop, the cartels to stop, the gang members to stop, and those that wish us ill.”
But Hannity’s tone had changed markedly by the next night.
“I’m not happy either,” Hannity said Tuesday. “Nobody should be happy. The President has every right to be angry.”
Hannity said that while he had “no insider information,” he believed the President would declare a national emergency.
“And the President, I think I know him pretty well, telegraphed that very thing just today,” Hannity added.
The difference in those 24 hours were a slew of phone calls from the White House to the President’s allies in the media, framing the deal as a win for Trump by making two points: that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was taking a loss because she said the President would not get more than $1 for his wall, while pledging that Trump would take executive action to secure further funding for the wall beyond the $1 billion dollars included in the agreement.
The President’s advisers placed the calls in the hopes Trump’s media allies would adopt a more optimistic outlook – and in turn dissuade the President from rejecting the deal and triggering another government shutdown.
The New York Times first reported on the calls between the White House and Trump’s media allies.
White House aides were relieved when the hosts of Fox & Friends cast the deal in a rosier light, followed by the positive remarks from Hannity, Laura Ingraham and Lou Dobbs later on.
On Thursday, however, some of those voices returned to their initial skepticism.
“So the president has his hand forced to sign a 1,159 page bill that we KNOW is filled with amnesty, PORK and wiggle room? Total SCAM! @realDonaldTrump wasn’t elected for this,” Ingraham wrote on Twitter. “This bill must NOT be signed by @realDonaldTrump.”
While Trump has offered signals he will sign the plan, no aide is fully sure he won’t reverse course, as he has on previous government funding agreements. Trump has also voiced fresh concern that no one has time to fully read the 1,000-page bill – something in March he said he wouldn’t abide.
“But I say to Congress: I will never sign another bill like this again. I’m not going to do it again. Nobody read it. It’s only hours old,” he said then, before signing a package he complained contained inadequate border security funding.
Though aides are publicly framing the agreement as a win for the President, many are relieved that he’s indicated he will sign it, feeling that they have run out of other options and have no leverage.
Officials have said they are waiting to read the full text of the bill before the President publicly endorses it, but they were briefed on major aspects of the agreement before a Cabinet meeting Tuesday.
This story has been updated.