Stephen Bannon, President Donald Trump’s recently embattled White House chief strategist, has advised the president and senior staff to take a hard “stand” on border-wall funding this week—a game of chicken with lawmakers on Capitol Hill that threatens an imminent government shutdown.
“This is a stand worth taking,” Bannon told allies last week, according to two White House sources with direct knowledge who talked to The Daily Beast on the condition of anonymity to speak freely. “We’re drawing a line in the sand.”
“[Bannon] was pushing for this standoff, very hard,” another Trump administration official said. “He is 100-percent committed to this [specific] fight… to show that [the White House is] tough on immigration [enforcement], tough on the border—show they’re serious about the wall.”
Last week, Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s director of the Office of Management and Budget and co-founder of the House Freedom Caucus, signaled that the president was prepared to use the threat of a government shutdown at the end of this week as leverage to force Democrats into supporting some funding for building Trump’s desired wall on the U.S.-Mexico border. The proposed trade, and set-up for a spending showdown, was clear: If Trump gets money for his wall, Democrats get money for Obamacare subsidies.
“ObamaCare is in serious trouble. The Dems need big money to keep it going - otherwise it dies far sooner than anyone would have thought,” the president tweeted on Sunday morning. “The Democrats don’t want money from budget going to border wall despite the fact that it will stop drugs and very bad MS 13 gang members.”
While Mulvaney accused Democrats on the Hill of “holding hostage national security” by opposing $1.5 billion to help construct the wall (one of Trump’s longest-running campaign promises), top congressional Republicans remain—at best—uneasy about the Trump administration making the border wall the deal-breaker.
Senate and House Democrats, for their part, do not appear to be budging in the president’s direction, and instead spent the past few days bashing Trump for throwing a wrench into funding negotiations meant to forestall another government shutdown. “We’d ask [Trump] to let us do our work, not throw in some last-minute poison pills that could undo it, and we could get this done,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer told reporters.
It’s a game of chicken that, if the White House doesn’t blink, sets up Republicans in Congress for a no-win situation, and the White House for more signs of dysfunction in Trump’s first 100 days in office.
That Bannon and his West Wing and Trump-administration allies—who make up the so-called nationalist, anti-globalist faction of Trump’s inner political circle—would wholeheartedly support this kind of spending fight isn’t a surprise.
The nationalist true-believers on Trump’s team view a hard-line on immigration as a core tenet, and as another way for them to assert influence during a time when a more centrist-leaning faction, spearheaded by such officials as Jared Kushner, Ivanka Trump, and Gary Cohn, appeared ascendent in the West Wing.
In recent weeks—as various news outlets were busy prematurely writing Bannon’s political obituary—Bannon and his associates have reasserted their relevance by also backing and cheering on President Trump on draconian immigration policies, “Buy American, Hire American” rhetoric, and new executive orders that reflect a nationalist worldview on issue such as trade and imports.
Some of these measures, however, are watered down from what many of the Trumpian nationalists wanted, and some have been indefinitely blocked, including Trump’s travel restrictions and “Muslim bans” that were swiftly tied up in court. These hardliners had wanted a memo—calling for the Commerce Department to investigate whether steel imports threaten U.S. national security—to include immediate additional 25-percent tariffs imposed on certain product categories that are allegedly being unfairly “dumped” into the U.S. The proposed tariffs were ultimately left off the memo, according to an Axios report last week.
Two White House sources told The Daily Beast that the nixed tariffs were in part a throwback to when Trump, in 2011 during his birther-fueled political rise, told a crowd that as president he would “drop a 25-percent tax on China.”
“Listen, you motherfuckers, we’re gonna tax you 25 percent,” he said on stage in Las Vegas to hoots and rowdy applause nearly six years before he became president.
The week ahead is set to be a particularly tense one for the Trump White House, as the president’s 100-day mark looms, the government-shutdown standoff builds to a head, and a potential tax-reform blueprint gets floated.
Much of this drama will be exacerbated by the simple fact that Trump staffers are acting scared for their jobs and standing in the president’s eyes.
According to senior Trump administration officials speaking to The Daily Beast last week, some of Trump’s top aides have been “taking a lot of heat” and are under tremendous pressure to score a tangible or spin-able win—any win—before President Trump hits his 100th day.