Days into a partial government shutdown that has left tens of thousands of federal workers furloughed, President Donald Trump and his close allies have begun feeling more confident about the political perch they occupy.
In their eyes, a prolonged stalemate will likely fracture voters along traditional partisan lines, and the ultimate outcome will be a debate waged largely on the president’s terms. Increasingly, they see an upside in forcing likely incoming Speaker Nancy Pelosi to have to spend the first days, if not weeks, of the next Congress engaged in an argument over border wall funding rather than her preferred agenda: a mix of sweeping ethics and election reforms and congressional oversight. And they continue to believe that a conversation around immigration and border security is in the president’s best political interests.
“The more the focus is on the wall, the more Pelosi is forced to focus on this fight instead of the investigations,” said one source close to the White House, expressing a sentiment shared with The Daily Beast by three other individuals allied with Trump. “It’s a situation where [Trump] has no choice but to shut it down. It’s the best of the worst choices. It’s really the only choice [because] I think there are people who would vote for him today who might not if he gave in too quickly."
The White House press office did not immediately respond to a request for comment. But two people who’ve spoken with Trump about the shutdown—one during and the other just before it began—said the president believes the politics have been a boon for him and a potential humiliation for the Democrats. One of these sources said Trump has privately predicted that Democratic politicians are “screwing themselves” with voters by resisting his hard-line, restrictionist immigration policies, and not signing on to his wall.
Another top adviser said internal polling showed illegal immigration was a galvanizing issue for the suburban women voters Republicans had lost in the midterm elections. Trump and the Republican Party’s strategy leading up to those midterm elections had relied heavily on overhyping fears about asylum seekers on the southern border. That nativist touch ultimately proved ineffective in helping the GOP hold on to its House majority, though the adviser insisted that the messaging was simply overshadowed by other issues, including health care.
On Thursday, Republican leadership all but conceded that they would not be able to pass a funding bill until the next Congress convenes next year. But not everyone in the party universally shares a fight-it-out mindset. Some fear that the president’s open willingness to “proudly” own the shutdown will backfire and others legitimately see geopolitical harm in not having a fully functioning federal government. Inside Trump world, however, people have grown emboldened by the idea that a standoff will prove beneficial politically; or, at least, give Pelosi some early fits.
“I don’t think [the White House] thought it out strategically,” said one former Trump aide. “It is something Trump fell into and got lucky. He’s a lucky guy in a lot of ways.”
Though there is scant public data on voters' reaction to the current shutdown, the numbers that are available paint a dimmer picture for Trump than his boosters’ comments would suggest. A Morning Consult poll released on Wednesday had the president at a 39 percent approval rating, the lowest of his presidency in that particular survey. And a poll commissioned by Reuters had 47 percent of respondents blaming Trump for the shutdown and just 33 percent blaming congressional Democrats.
Inside Democratic circles, there is a universally held belief that Pelosi’s hand only grows stronger as time goes on. She is expected to introduce a clean funding bill to reopen the government as soon as she takes the gavel and, as numerous aides noted, she can and likely will begin her push on ethics and oversight even if that funding bill remains unsigned by Trump.
“I don’t see this as going well for them. He keeps digging himself further in a hole with his every comment and move,” said one top ranking congressional Democratic aide. “The idea that they’re somehow doing good in this shows they’re clearly living in a Fox News bubble.”
In the meantime, the actual negotiations between Democrats and Republicans over resolving the shutdown remain frustratingly slow, as congressional sources say neither side seems to have a firm grasp on what type of legislative package Trump would actually agree to in order to get the government reopened. That confusion was compounded last week, when Vice President Mike Pence told lawmakers that Trump would sign a deal that would keep government funding at current levels until Feb. 8, only to have the president come out against the measure after conservative talk radio hosts blistered him with criticism because it didn’t include $5 billion in funding for the wall.
On Saturday, there was a glimmer of hope that some form of compromise might be on the horizon after Pence and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) met in private to discuss the matter. But the Democratic leader stressed to the vice president that his caucus would not consider an offer until the president publicly endorsed it, given, as Schumer’s spokesman noted, “that the President has changed his position so many times.”
The confusion worsened in recent days as Trump seemingly altered his demands over what type of wall structure he would prefer and how much funding would be adequate. On Thursday, the president tweeted cryptically about a deal he, Pelosi, and Schumer nearly crafted in 2017, in which $25 billion would be spent on wall construction in exchange for the gradual legalization of undocumented minors brought to this country by their parents.
A senior administration official told The Daily Beast that Trump would be open to broader negotiations—including ones that addressed DACA recipients—in order to resolve this current standoff. The official framed it as a resolution in which “both sides feel like they can get something on their signature issue.”
But Democratic officials on Capitol Hill said that no such discussions had come even remotely close to taking place and that, even if they did, lawmakers would have a difficult time trusting Trump after he proactively nixed the last round of talks.
In an illustration of just how committed the president and his allies remain to the immigration issue, Trump’s reelection campaign sent out numerous fundraising appeals Wednesday hyping his willingness to shut down the government over a border wall. The solicitations encouraged recipients to become “Official Build The Wall Members” while giving every indication that the president has a long-term investment in waging this fight.
“This is your opportunity to go down in HISTORY as one of the American Patriots that saved our country and built THE WALL,” one fundraising email read.
With reporting by Lachlan Markay