U.S. President Donald Trump gestures after signing H.R. 2, Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018, during a ceremony at the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S. (Photographer: Zach Gibson/Bloomberg)

Trump Loses on Wall and Declares Victory

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- After 35 days, President Donald Trump announced a deal to reopen the government on exactly the same terms that were available to him more than a month ago: A short-term funding bill with continuing negotiations on border security. Trump didn’t so much cave as he just plain lost. He didn’t have the votes, and as time went on he was even farther away from having them.

Yes, there will be some negotiations in a House-Senate conference committee over what to do about border security, and Democrats will cut a deal for increased spending that they would have been willing to agree to in December. But the border wall remains as dead as ever. 

In a rambling Rose Garden statement, Trump still held out the threat of another shutdown when this bill runs out on Feb. 15. He also suggested he could invoke emergency powers to build his wall if the conference committee doesn’t come up with the funding. Neither is very likely. Support for Trump’s position has collapsed among Hill Republicans after Thursday’s votes demonstrated his weak position, and as the air traffic control system started more visibly eroding Friday morning. Given that, it’s hard to believe that Senate Republicans would shut down the government again, only to find themselves in exactly the same situation. 

As for emergency powers, if Trump believed they were a good way to get what he wants, he likely would have already invoked them. It’s not just that there’s a very good chance the courts would reject him. Or that he would further alienate those, including many Republicans, who would consider it an abuse of power, an accusation Trump has to be particularly careful about as indictments of his former associates multiply. The even more immediate problem is that money spent by constitutionally dubious edict by the president without congressional appropriation has to come from someplace, and there are strong constituencies that will be very upset if he tries to take it (as has been floated already) from regular military spending or disaster relief. 

Once again, the lesson is that government shutdowns are not some magical trump card that one side can play to force the other to surrender. In fact, as the third extended shutdown in U.S. history comes to an end, it’s obvious that whatever the ethics of harming the nation in order to win a policy battle might be, such a maneuver is entirely ineffective as a negotiating tactic. And yet Republicans -- the Newt Gingrich Republicans in 1995-1996, the Ted Cruz Republicans in 2013, and Trump and his supporters in 2018-2019 -- keep trying anyway. One would hope they have finally learned how futile it is.

Granted, this time, it seems to have just been Trump personally who thought it was a good idea, perhaps egged on by a few House Freedom Caucus members. Other Republicans believed (correctly or not) that they were simply trapped into going along. Perhaps they were right; maybe if they had ended this in December or in early January Trump would have turned his scorn on them and caused them greater political trouble than they endured.

Trump’s actions, on the other hand, just seem entirely irrational. He can always go down to the border, find some newly repainted or repaired fencing, declare a glorious victory, and the Fox News audience would go along. Or to put it another way:

Given that, forcing a confrontation that he was almost certain to lose just never made any sense. 

Unfortunately, that means we still can’t be entirely certain that there won’t be a shutdown in February. But while Trump’s actions may not be rational, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s usually are. If the president rejects whatever the conference committee does, McConnell will probably find another option, whether it’s another short-term spending extension or, if necessary, just overriding Trump’s veto.

As Richard Neustadt said, “The Presidency is no place for amateurs.” It’s very rare indeed for a president to retain that status in his third year in the Oval Office, but then again everything about Trump is very rare. With any luck, the next time he tries something this obviously inept it will be less damaging to the nation, but there’s no guarantee of that.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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