Donald Trump’s pattern of backing off

President Donald Trump speaks at the National Republican Congressional Committee’s annual spring dinner in Washington, April 2, 2019. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

His border shutdown went from imminent to uncertain. A major health care push was declared and then delayed. Funding cuts were inserted in his proposed budget and just as quickly taken out.

President Donald Trump has been exploring the art of the climb-down.

Trump pivoted on two big policy fronts this week, easing up on his threats to quickly close the southern border and deciding that a fresh effort to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act should wait until after the 2020 election.

The moves came as Republicans, outside groups and aides expressed anxiety about the potential economic and political fallout from Trump’s proposals.

The president’s swift backpedaling underscored his off-the-cuff style and suggested that more such drama is likely ahead as he tries to sync his policymaking with his re-election campaign.

To many, the Washington whiplash was another reminder that Trump tweets first and governs later.

“Most presidents and even most CEOs, when they make a decision that is going to have financial impact or personnel impact, you seek a lot of input,” said Republican strategist Rick Tyler. “He doesn’t do that. Even his own communications staff says he goes by his gut.”

President Donald Trump told House Republicans on Tuesday that they need to embrace health care reform and make it the first thing they vote on after the 2020 election. Trump spoke at a Republican fundraiser. (April 3)
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The president’s pronouncements and social media blasts are often surprise attacks. They can vanish as quickly as they emerge if political expedience warrants a different tack.

His announcement last week that the GOP was going to take on health care again despite a bruising and unsuccessful effort in 2017 stunned most in his own party and seemed driven in part by a lingering desire to fulfill his oft-repeated 2016 campaign promise to repeal “Obamacare.”

He surprised his own education secretary with the declaration that he was reversing a plan to ax federal aid for the Special Olympics after the proposed cuts sparked a public outcry.

Few working for him ever want to get out in front of a Trump announcement for fear it will change at the last minute.

Trump’s latest policy twists come after the conclusion of the special counsel’s Russia investigation and as the president is turning his attention to his 2020 campaign.

His loose style also reflects his current leadership team. Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney is viewed as a less-controlling figure than previous chiefs, seeking to provide Trump with analysis and information, but not trying to restrict his conversations or steer his decisions.

After threatening last week to seal the border if Mexico did not immediately halt all illegal immigration into the U.S., Trump on Tuesday appeared to be laying the groundwork for a delay, saying he was happy with steps taken by Mexico and that he would like to see Congress pass legislation revising the immigration system. Still, he held open the possibility of a border shutdown, saying: “I’m totally ready to do it.”

Trump has been threatening the closure privately for months, but his staff has been trying to slow him down with data about the economic impact and suggestions on ways to lessen the financial hit.

The president acknowledged the economy was on his mind Tuesday but played down those concerns, saying, “Let me just give you a little secret: Security is more important to me than trade.”

On health care, Trump plunged into the fight again last week, prompted by a court deadline. But his motivations were always as political as they were legislative, with the president not wanting to cede a 2020 campaign issue to Democrats. And allies stressed Tuesday that the president had never laid out a timeline for legislation.

With his tweet Monday night, Trump made clear there would be no vote until after the 2020 election, though he insisted a GOP plan still was in the works.

His downgrade came after pressure from congressional Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who said he told Trump “we were not going to be doing that in the Senate.”

Asked if he was acting at McConnell’s behest, Trump insisted: “I wanted to delay it myself.”

Heading into 2020, Trump sees border security and health care as key issues for his political base and he is expected to keep pushing them even if he dials back specific threats.

Speaking Tuesday night at the National Republican Congressional Committee’s spring dinner, he declared that Republicans “should not run away from health care.”

“If we stay away from that subject, we’re going to lose,” Trump said.

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Associated Press writers Jill Colvin and Kevin Freking contributed to this report.

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Copyright © 2019 Capitol Hill Blue

Copyright © 2019 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved

Trump can’t win shutdown fight with stagecraft

President Donald Trump. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Military salutes. Heaps of contraband. Oval Office optics.

President Donald Trump, who has long put a premium on stagecraft, is discovering he cannot resolve the partial government shutdown simply by putting on a show.

With the standoff over paying for his long-promised U.S.-Mexico wall dragging on, the president’s Oval Office address and visit to the Texas border this past week failed to break the logjam. Aides and allies are fearful that he has misjudged Democratic resolve and is running out of negotiating options.

Using the trappings of the White House to make a point is a standard procedure. Dramatic public displays have been Trump’s negotiating go-to. But even Trump was skeptical that the speech and trip would make a difference.

Some in the White House argue that Trump’s moves helped push his message. But many associates fear his hand is weakening as his efforts to define the stakes must compete with the testimonials of hardship from federal workers and people in need of shuttered government services. That may leave a national emergency declaration as Trump’s only escape path — one more showy strategy that could backfire.

Trump defended his approach Saturday, telling critics on Twitter that “there’s almost nobody in the W.H. but me, and I do have a plan on the Shutdown.” During a telephone interview with a Fox News Channel host later that night, Trump insisted that he hadn’t “left the White House in months” and he called on Democrats to come to the table. The Texas trip was two days earlier.

Former Trump campaign aide Sam Nunberg said Trump was simply using all available tools. Nunberg argued that Trump’s border visit, which included an interview on the president’s preferred network, Fox News, was “not going to win any hearts and minds.” But he added that the Oval Office address was a “great opportunity” for Trump to make his case to an audience of millions well beyond his most loyal supporters.

In a moment of deep political divisions, though, the presidential megaphone does not seem to hold the power it once did.

Democratic leaders have dismissed Trump’s tactics. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., last week decrying the “soap opera that the president’s petulance and obstinance is creating.”

Trump’s visit to McAllen, Texas was staged for maximum impact.

At a border patrol facility, he surveyed mounds of drugs and weapons seized by agents. He hugged tearful families who spoke of relatives killed by those in the United States illegally. He traveled to a dusty bluff above the Rio Grande and saluted a border patrol helicopter as it flew past.

The stop was intended to reinforce Trump’s claims of chaos and crisis at the border, but it was notable for what was left out. The contraband was designed to emphasize the dangers of an unsecured border. But there was only passing mention that the drugs were intercepted at official points of entry, not in open areas where Trump wants to build a wall. Trump did meet with victims and agents, but he did not go to a nearby facility where hundreds of the migrant children were detained in cages after being separated from their parents last year.

Allies say Trump has dug in for good reason: building a wall has always been a sure-fire applause line for Trump. Some, however, believe it has become a political albatross.

Trump promised the wall during his campaign as part of his immigration platform. At his rallies, he encouraged supporters to chant “Build the wall! Build the wall!” and he pledged that Mexico would pay for it.

Since coming to the White House, he has failed to get Mexico to pay for the wall and has struggled to advance his immigration policies in Congress, even when Republicans were in full control of both chambers. With Democrats now in the majority in the House, his leverage has dwindled.

Increasingly, many around Trump think that the only way out of the shutdown impasse is for the president to declare a national emergency to try and pay for the wall by diverting federal funds from other programs. They reason that such a declaration would wind up in court, but Trump could reopen government in the meantime and say he was continuing the fight for the wall during the legal fight. It’s a play that would be in keeping with Trump’s pattern of claiming victory even when the circumstances are murky.

In June, Trump declared his summit with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un was a groundbreaking achievement although it yielded only a vaguely worded commitment from the North to denuclearize. In November, Trump claimed historic wins in the midterm elections even though Republicans lost control of the House. In early 2017, he held a Rose Garden celebration after a health care overhaul passed the House, seeking to claim the victory before it passed both chambers, which it never did.

Trump’s public posturing has moved the needle at times. His administration’s push helped get a tax overhaul over the finish line. His tariffs fight with China has brought both sides to the negotiating table.

Still, as Trump tries to find a way out of the shutdown impasse, Republican consultant Rick Tyler argued that some of the president’s ploys may be getting stale.

“There’s a reason the circus comes to town for a week,” he said. “He’s worn out his act.”

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Catherine Lucey has covered politics and the White House for The Associated Press since 2012.
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Copyright © 2019 Capitol Hill Blue

Copyright © 2019 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved

Trump’s erratic negotiating style isn’t working

President Donald Trump. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

The partial government shutdown is spotlighting the limitations of President Donald Trump’s erratic negotiating style.

With the impasse over Trump’s demand for border-wall funding dragging into a third week, the president’s zigzag tactics and messaging have angered Democrats and frustrated even some Republicans struggling to help find him an off-ramp.

And while Trump’s blend of bluster and bullying is hardly new — and at times can produce results — his self-professed dealmaking skills are now facing a bigger test against newly empowered Democrats.

So far, Trump is standing firmly with the loyal supporters who want him to fight for his promised wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. But that stance carries considerable risk. The midterm elections revealed a deeply divided Republican Party and saw major Democratic gains in states that Trump will need to win re-election in 2020.

Always his own biggest booster, Trump declared himself “very proud of what I’m doing” after a meeting with congressional leaders on Friday that produced no breakthrough.

Trump’s allies say he is simply keeping a longstanding campaign promise and they frame his focus on his base as a smart strategy, since he will need to energize those supporters for his re-election campaign. Some suggested that Trump’s true believers aren’t even interested in a negotiated compromise.

I guarantee polling-wise, with his base, he is right in the sweet spot,” said former campaign aide Barry Bennett. “If he cut a deal now it would hurt him.”

But Trump will need a broader swath of support than those base voters to prevail in 2020.

Getting dollars for a border wall was always going to be an uphill task for Trump. But after Democrats took control of the House in the midterm elections, the president’s leverage ebbed. And his unreliable maneuvers have only aggravated the situation.

In recent weeks, Trump declared he would “own” the shutdown, then instead blamed Democrats. His border demands have gone back and forth between a concrete wall to “steel slats.” He’s insulted Democrats, confused Republicans and offered little empathy for the hundreds of thousands of federal workers without paychecks. And his Twitter feed and public pronouncements have produced a steady stream of inaccuracies about what he refers to as the “crisis on the border.”

Trump’s fitful style is hardly a surprise. In a previous budget showdown, Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer likened bargaining with Trump to negotiating with “Jell-O.” Back in March, Trump threw lawmakers into a panic when he threatened an 11th-hour veto of an agreed-upon spending bill, only to be talked out of it by advisers.

Just a few weeks ago, lawmakers thought they had a solution to the standoff, with a short-term agreement to keep government open. The White House had signaled it would consider the plan. But then Trump changed course after coming under intense pressure from conservative allies. Since then he has repeatedly said he won’t sign a spending deal that lacks money for the wall — though he’s signaled some flexibility on just what constitutes a wall.

A further complication: Trump’s long practice of contradicting his aides makes it difficult for anyone else to negotiate on his behalf.

In recent days, Trump has rejected his own administration’s previous offer to accept $2.5 billion for the wall. After a round of staff-level talks Saturday, Vice President Mike Pence tweeted that the session had been “productive,” only to have Trump later tweet: “Not much headway made today.” On Sunday, Trump said that he was not expecting much to come from further talks held by Pence, undercutting him before the session even began.

If there has been a constant, in fact, it is the mixed messaging.

In a rambling Rose Garden appearance on Friday, Trump described his meeting with congressional leaders as productive, after Democrats claimed otherwise. He said much of the wall had been built, though it hasn’t. He said Mexico would pay for the wall through a new trade deal, though there are no such terms in the still-unratified deal. He wrongly claimed that he’d never called for the wall to be concrete. And he claimed, without evidence, that some ex-presidents had told him to push for the wall.

Trump, the author of “The Art of the Deal,” promised during his campaign that he could bring unmatched dealmaking skills to the White House. But navigating complex legislation, trade issues and foreign policy matters is vastly different from executing real estate transactions.

So far, Trump’s presidential dealmaking has had mixed results.

A massive tax cut muscled through in his first year was a major legislative win, though it was done with just Republican support. A meeting with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un yielded only a vaguely worded commitment on denuclearization. And a trade clash with China that has rattled world markets has yet to be resolved.

Republican consultant Alex Conant said that in Trump’s dealings so far, “he hasn’t drawn many concessions from his adversaries, nor has he given many concessions.” But Conant allowed that the landscape got a whole lot tougher for Trump when Democrats took back the House, and the shutdown is far from the last test the president will face.

Warned Conant: “This will not be the last government funding package he’ll have to negotiate.”

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Catherine Lucey has covered politics and the White House for The Associated Press since 2012.
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Copyright © 2018 Capitol Hill Blue

Copyright © 2018 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved