As President Donald Trump announced in the Rose Garden on Friday that his quixotic bid to secure more than $5 billion for a border wall would end with no money, he was met with applause from his Cabinet secretaries and senior aides.
But the clapping belied a pervasive sense of defeat. Instead of emerging victorious, many of Trump’s allies are walking away from a record-breaking government shutdown feeling outplayed, not least by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The President is now more unpopular than he was before the shutdown began, sacked with blame for the 35-day lapse in funding. Friday’s announcement was an extraordinary comedown that left many in the White House and those who support Trump marveling at the futility of the preceding four weeks of brinkmanship. In the eyes of some aides and outside advisers, an entire fruitless month has passed that cannot be recouped, a waste of the most valuable asset a White House has: the President’s attention and time.
“A humiliating loss for a man that rarely loses,” one Trump adviser said. “I miss winning.”
The supporters are not focusing on the fact that the back down is only for three weeks and the shutdown will be back on after that.
Trump remains hopeful that some moderate Democrats will join him in supporting funding for a border wall after the funding measure expires in mid-February. Administration officials say he would be willing to accept less than the $5.7 billion he has insisted upon in an attempt to strike an accord. Acknowledging a new political reality with Pelosi in charge, one adviser said the only way forward for Trump is “compromise,” with little room for the no-holds-barred approach favored by advisers like Stephen Miller, the immigration hardliner. “Today is not a cave but a grave for Stephen Miller policies,” the adviser said, acknowledging it’s not clear at all that Trump is ready to make that kind of course correction.
During most of the shutdown, Trump remained singularly focused on the wall, declining to travel much and declaring at regular intervals that he was alone in the White House, waiting to negotiate. The shutdown made for the longest stretch of Trump’s presidency that he did not play golf. What was supposed to be a three-week stay at his South Florida estate turned into an extended cloistering at the White House. Over the December holidays and into January, he remained in the executive mansion alone while first lady Melania Trump escaped to Florida. He recalled peering out his window in a moment of loneliness to watch “machine gunners” pace around the White House grounds.
Publicly, the White House has insisted that Trump’s decision is not a concession. Nearly his entire cabinet assembled in the Rose Garden to applaud him as he announced a plan to reopen the government. And Trump himself sought to dissuade his followers of the notion he’d abandoned the quest for the wall in an evening tweet. “I wish people would read or listen to my words on the Border Wall,” he wrote. “This was in no way a concession. It was taking care of millions of people who were getting badly hurt by the Shutdown with the understanding that in 21 days, if no deal is done, it’s off to the races!” His optimism aside, many officials expressed real regret that Trump effectively wasted a full month of his presidency on the wall fight, with little action or attention to any non-border items. By extending the battle another three weeks, it’s unclear whether Trump is interested in pursuing any other domestic policy items aside from the border wall.
Acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and other senior aides have tried to gauge which issues Trump wants to take up after the border fight is done— be it drug pricing, trade, infrastructure, or something else. But they’ve made little progress. Trump does expect to meet next month with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, but even those plans have taken second billing to the border standoff. That’s a bad omen for some conservatives and policy-minded officials, many of whom say they believe Trump doesn’t appreciate how finite his presidency really is. Veterans of past administrations have tried imparting this to him to little avail, according to people familiar with the conversations. That’s left many inside the White House, and others who advise Trump, feeling like he’s let a whole month go by with nothing to show for it.