Donald Trump frequently claims to make history. Saturday, he really did.
As what’s now officially the longest shutdown in U.S. history heads into its fourth week, leaders appear no closer to striking a deal to make it stop.
A senior Trump administration official said Vice President Mike Pence is staying in Washington, DC, this weekend and will be communicating with White House senior staff and lawmakers on Capitol Hill in the administration's negotiation efforts. Neither side seemed particularly optimistic that they were anywhere near a deal after a week that was long on drama and short on results.
Friday afternoon, the president told reporters he would let Congress hammer out the details “right now” instead of embarking on a risky strategy of declaring a national emergency and siphoning money from other parts of the budget for the wall.
Trump has emphasized his claim it would be within his legal right to do so, even though his own lawyers have reportedly warned him of the highly questionable constitutionality of such a move, and the all-but-certain court challenge it would provoke.
In a letter to Democratic members on Friday evening, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) promised to fight any White House attempt to circumvent Congress.
"Now, President Trump is threatening to grant himself extraordinary powers to steal billions of dollars from disaster-impacted communities, the military and urgent civil works projects in order build his wall," she wrote. "Leadership and our Committees are working together to develop legal, policy, and communications responses should they be needed."
The president’s vacillation on the issue underscored the ongoing state of confusion and improvisation at the top of Trumpworld, as the president and GOP dig in against Democratic leaders, with neither side showing signs of folding during the prolonged fight. Top allies to the White House on Capitol Hill looking for some kind of clarity came up empty, as well.
On Friday morning, Mercedes Schlapp, the White House director of strategic communications, held a conference call with House and Senate Republican staff, including aides to House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy. According to a source who was on the messaging call, Schlapp indicated that she still didn’t know if the president was going to declare an emergency and circumvent Congress to build his border wall. Schlapp asked Republicans on the conference call to push back on Democrats who had said that such a declaration was imminent—even as she conceded that Trump’s senior staffers don’t know if it was or wasn’t imminent, the source told The Daily Beast.
“No end in sight” has become the four-word phrase commonly used by sources within and outside of the administration to describe the standoff. Half a dozen Trump administration officials privately acknowledge that the meetings and negotiations are, currently, little more than messaging opportunities for the news cameras, since neither side has much political incentive to buckle yet.
And although the week was eventful, featuring back-to-back primetime speeches by Trump and Democratic leaders, Capitol Hill visits by both the president and Vice President Pence and of course, a presidential walk-out from one particularly bad round of negotiations, the week ended as it began: with Democrats and Republicans trading barbs over the shutdown from their respective corners and very little, if anything, getting done for the 800,000 federal workers who remained on furlough or working without pay for three weeks.
Cracks continued appearing in GOP support of the president, as 10 House Republicans joined Democrats in voting for the Senate version of the Interior appropriations bill—part of a strategy to open up parts of the government that have nothing to do with border security. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has repeatedly rejected such bills as “stunts.”
"The last thing we need to do right now is trade pointless—absolutely pointless—show votes back and forth across the aisle," McConnell said on the Senate floor Thursday.
But members of his conference also signaled they were growing tired of the shutdown stalemate.
“Nobody is winning in this,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said in a speech on the Senate floor Friday afternoon. “We owe it to the people of this country to function… and when the government is shut down, partial or otherwise, we are not functioning.”
By midday Friday, both the House and Senate had left town for the weekend, ensuring that the shutdown would hit its 24th day by Monday.
Ever since the eve of the partial government shutdown—the second shutdown of the Trump era—the president has kept his options, even or perhaps particularly the extreme ones, on the table, often surveying his menagerie of conservative media personalities and hardline boosters including Sean Hannity, Lou Dobbs, and Rush Limbaugh.
For instance, the day after Trump hosted the pre-shutdown meeting and televised stunt with Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer last month, BlazeTV anchor and Trump friend Eric Bolling says he was in the Oval Office for a half-hour conversation with the president. When their chat touched on the “Chuck and Nancy meeting,” Trump, as Bolling recalls, simply asked, “What did you think?”
After the BlazeTV host told him he thought the Democrats “looked like petulant teenagers,” Trump approvingly nodded and asked him, “What do you mean?” without adding much.
“That’s how he takes advice from people he trusts,” including on the shutdown fight, Bolling told The Daily Beast. “And oftentimes, he won’t say much because he doesn’t want to give away what he’s going to do… He does this thing where he listens a lot and doesn’t really give what his side or his opinion is.”
Another Trump confidant said that in a recent conversation with the president, they urged Trump to sidestep Congress and flex his emergency powers. Trump merely said it was within his power to do so and that “maybe” he would do it soon, before abruptly changing the topic to vent about his perennial media enemies.
Meanwhile, federal workers received their first paychecks with a zero balance as the impact of the shutdown mounted. The increasingly dire state of the air travel industry has been particularly visible as growing numbers of TSA agents called out sick, causing massive lines and security concerns inside the nation’s largest airport in Los Angeles. Miami International Airport had so few screeners they were forced to close a terminal.
The National Air Traffic Controllers Association, whose members rallied on Capitol Hill on Thursday afternoon, became the latest union to sue the federal government over the shutdown on Friday.
The lone silver lining for federal workers came Friday when the House passed a bill that guarantees they will receive back pay for the weeks the government is shuttered and the president said he would sign it.