The next three weeks will test whether President Trump can rebound as he faces a new deadline to come up with an agreement.Sarah Silbiger/The New York Times
WASHINGTON — President Trump famously declared that in his administration the nation would become tired of all the winning. So on Friday he tried a little losing.
After the longest government shutdown in history, Mr. Trump surrendered with nothing concrete (or steel) to show for the battle, taking essentially the same deal that was on the table in December that he originally rejected, touching off a 35-day impasse.
With Senator Mitch McConnell on the telephone, rank-and-file Republicans in revolt and televisions in the White House showing air traffic slowing in the Northeast because of the shutdown, Mr. Trump bowed to the inevitable and agreed to reopen the government until Feb. 15 without the money for his border wall that he had demanded.
For a president who believes in zero-sum politics and considers compromise a sign of weakness, it was a bruising setback, a retreat that underscored the limits of his ability to bull his way through the opposition in this new era of divided government. As it turned out, the art of the deal at this stage of Mr. Trump’s presidency requires a different approach and the question is whether he can adjust.
“By any measure, it was an unequivocal loss,” said Patrick J. Griffin, who was the White House legislative director for President Bill Clinton during the government shutdowns of the 1990s. “No interpretation is needed. No wall and probably lost votes rather than gain or strengthen his base.”
[Some conservatives accused President Trump of folding on a central promise.]
The next three weeks will test whether Mr. Trump can rebound as he faces a new deadline to come up with an agreement. If he can find common ground with Democrats led by Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senator Chuck Schumer while making progress on his wall, he may yet emerge from this searing ordeal claiming a political victory.
If not, however, he may discover his disgruntled fellow Republicans on Capitol Hill less willing to go along with a renewed government shutdown, forcing him to decide whether to provoke a constitutional clash by declaring a national emergency to bypass Congress altogether and build the wall without legislative approval.
White House officials argue that there are more moderate House Democrats who are willing to support a wall even though Ms. Pelosi has called the project “immoral” and opposed spending even a single dollar on it. In the days to come, they hope to either peel off those Democrats and force Ms. Pelosi to meet somewhere in the middle or to drive a wedge among Democrats highlighting their own divisions.
“Moving forward for the next three weeks, have the Democrats boxed themselves into a corner with zero for wall funding that makes them look weak on border security?” asked Marc Short, who was Mr. Trump’s White House legislative director earlier in his presidency. “Will the White House be able to work around Pelosi to gain enough Democrat support for some wall funding?”
After watching Ms. Pelosi this week disinvite Mr. Trump from delivering the State of the Union address while the government remained closed, Mr. McConnell concluded that she would never cave and decided to come off the sidelines to try to end the standoff. He scheduled votes for Thursday on two plans to end the stalemate, one on Mr. Trump’s terms and another Democratic version, mainly to demonstrate to the president that he did not have enough support to prevail.
After both bills failed to muster the 60 votes required for passage on Thursday, Mr. Trump was fed up and ready to get it over with, according to advisers. He was eager to get the dispute resolved at least temporarily so he could deliver his State of the Union address. He told Vice President Mike Pence and Jared Kushner, his son-in-law and senior adviser, to give him options.
They came back with four ways to reopen the government: a three-week spending bill that included a prorated portion of money as a down payment on the border wall pending further negotiations; a “clean” short-term spending bill that included no such money; a clean short-term bill with a bipartisan House-Senate conference committee to negotiate border security; or a declaration of national emergency that Mr. Trump would use to move money on his own while resuming government operations for the rest of the fiscal year.
Mr. McConnell met with Mr. Schumer and raised the idea of a down payment, but the Democrat rejected it. Mr. Schumer then suggested a short-term spending bill with a conference committee to negotiate. Mr. McConnell let the White House know that Mr. Schumer would sign onto that.
As late as Friday morning, though, Mr. Trump appeared set to make an emergency declaration. But when he spoke with Mr. McConnell again, the senator and Mr. Kushner argued against it. Mr. Trump backed off and agreed to the short-term reopening without wall money, telling aides that he knew it would result in a bad news cycle for several days, but that it was the right thing to do and would eventually yield a long-term victory.
His resolve to change the subject was fortified as he watched television on Friday morning to see his associate Roger J. Stone Jr. marched off to court by heavily armed F.B.I. agents arresting him in connection with the special counsel’s Russia investigation. The “icing on the cake,” as one official put it, were reports about air traffic out of La Guardia Airport in the president’s hometown and elsewhere in the region slowing because of the government shutdown.
The president scheduled an announcement, and the scene in the Rose Garden was surreal. Cabinet officers and White House aides lined up and applauded when the president emerged from the Oval Office as if he were declaring victory in his confrontation with Democrats in Congress. And the president sounded as if he was doing just that, opening his remarks by saying that he was “very proud to announce today that we have reached a deal to end the shutdown.”
Only there was no deal, just a retreat. The president who said he would never reopen the government unless he secured money for his border wall agreed to reopen the government without money for his border wall.
Supporters of a wall were hardly fooled, excoriating Mr. Trump for giving in. “Good news for George Herbert Walker Bush: As of today, he is no longer the biggest wimp ever to serve as President of the United States,” Ann Coulter, the conservative commentator who prodded Mr. Trump to take a firmer stand in December, wrote on Twitter.
Breitbart News, the conservative news site once run by Stephen K. Bannon, the president’s former senior adviser, made clear the disappointment among Mr. Trump’s base with its banner headline: “Government Open … And Border. No Wall.” So did The Daily Caller, another leading voice on the right: “TRUMP CAVES.” And The Washington Examiner agreed: “Trump blinks.”
Democrats were not exactly gracious in victory, barely containing their delight. “Hopefully, it means a lesson has been learned: Shutting down government over a policy difference is self-defeating,” tut-tutted Mr. Schumer. “It accomplishes nothing but pain and suffering for the country and the American people.”
By late in the day, a defensive Mr. Trump was insisting it was not a defeat. “I wish people would read or listen to my words on the Border Wall,” he tweeted. “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!”
Until now, of course, he had expressed little if any concern for those hurt by the shutdown, insisting instead that many of the 800,000 who went without pay for five weeks were on his side and wanted him to stand strong. Whether this episode prompts Mr. Trump to change his approach to governing, it has altered the politics of shutdowns leaving federal workers caught in the middle.
“The great irony is that the shutdown only proved the indispensable value of the very government Trump so often expresses such disdain for,” said Paul Bledsoe, a former Clinton White House aide who is now the strategic adviser at the Progressive Policy Institute, a center-left research organization.
Mr. Short, the former aide to Mr. Trump, said history had shown that government shutdowns could be hazardous to one’s political health. “Most people who have initiated shutdowns find it’s a hard negotiating position to be working from,” he said.
As Mr. Trump has now discovered, whether he acknowledges it or not.
Maggie Haberman and Nicholas Fandos contributed reporting.
Follow Peter Baker on Twitter: @peterbakernyt.