Whatever you think of Trump’s address from the Oval Office—a ransom note read without feeling or a presidential speech worthy of primetime from the Oval Office—it’s clear that Trump has dug in. He’s evolved all he’s going to, inching towards a steel barrier from a concrete wall. Parse the speech and every word since and Trump's left himself no way out. As long as those voters still won’t abandon him no matter whom he shoots, he thinks he’s fine in the corner he’s painted himself into.
This is a position outside of any known negotiating technique. One Trump supporter and former aide who frequently talks to the president said the author of The Art of the Deal would have put a number in an envelope in the West Wing of the amount he would accept that would allow him to declare victory. But the envelope, like the wall, at this point is metaphorical. The person who knows where it is has left the White House.
No matter, Trump is in no mood to compromise, despite saying Tuesday he could solve the impasse in a 45-minute meeting. He stomped out of a meeting with Democrats in the situation room before a half-hour was up because Democrats wouldn’t put a new offer on the table and because he believes he has the Senate solidly behind him. Tell that to Sens. Cory Gardner, Susan Collins, and Lisa Murkowski, who have already gone rogue. And despite Sen. Mitch McConnell emerging from witness protection to criticize partisan Democrats, the trend line, as the government shutdown moves from wreaking havoc on federal workers to harming businesses and the broader economy, is toward more defections. Every local news channel is covering workers out of a paycheck. Wait until the stories turn to TSA agents missing weapons at airport security. Imagine if romaine lettuce were causing a breakout of e coli infections as it did over Thanksgiving—but now with no FDA to pinpoint the farms responsible. I see a massive shift to iceberg until this mess is over.
Trump accomplished one big thing with his speech. He got Rush Limbaugh firmly back on his side. Last month, Limbaugh saw Trump going wobbly on the wall and scared the president enough that he suddenly reversed course. He refused to sign a clean continuing resolution, passed by a Republican Congress, that would have given up his leverage over Democrats to give him $5.7 billion. Limbaugh, a guy in a golf shirt turned Tribal Chieftain, was horrified that Trump would so easily leave the reservation. Trump doesn’t know if Limbaugh could turn his base against him. He doesn’t want to find out.
And won’t have to, at least yet. At noon Wednesday, Limbaugh opened his show with his faith in the man who would govern by chant renewed. He immediately dispatched with Chuck and Nancy, “morticians” (he had a point) whose rebuttal was dead on arrival. Limbaugh didn’t mention that their appearance drew higher ratings, according to Nielsen, than the president and self-proclaimed “king of ratings.”
In the category of faint praise, Limbaugh waxed eloquent over how relatively little Trump lied, thereby sticking it to the drive-by media who were salivating over a field night of heavy fact-checking. Limbaugh harped on how Democrats in years past favored building a wall, ignoring the inconvenient fact that the number of people crossing illegally has dropped dramatically—from about 1.6 million apprehensions 16 years ago to under 400,000 last year—with support from Democrats, and without that wall. It’s one reason why Trump used the phrase “border security” far more than wall Tuesday night. Someday his base may catch up with him.
For what the base is thinking, there’s no better barometer than Limbaugh. He’s obsessed with wavering Republicans as a mere rumor. If there were such a thing would Sen. Lindsey Graham be saying “it would be the end of our party” if the Senate doesn’t hang firm? Has Limbaugh been following Graham’s wild swings from one position to another lately? Ever the martyred talk show host ignored by the glitterati, Limbaugh files “rogues,” real or imagined, under behavior expected from the swamp. “Let’s say a bunch of Republican members of Congress do go wobbly. We wouldn’t be surprised, would we? This is exactly why Donald Trump was elected.”
When Vice President Mike Pence joined the show, he returned the Limbaugh love. “We couldn’t be more grateful for your voice.” The dittohead went on (and on). “Everything we’ve accomplished over the last two years (long list here), you played a key role in that. We don't thank you enough.” Now he has. He had a plea. “For heaven’s sake, your listeners need to know, if ever there was a time to call their representatives, it’s today.” They ended the smooch-fest mutually congratulating each other for no “buckling or caving.”
But hidden behind Limbaugh’s pat on the back was the implicit threat that it could be withdrawn should Trump buckle or cave. In three hours, Limbaugh ditto-loved Trump for doing his bidding but did not give him the slightest hint of a way out. In fact, it was the opposite. He adopted a high, girlish, tearful voice to mock anyone worried about those poor people hurt by the government shutdown.
Trump is all in with the mockery—to a point. But when the pain moves from the chumps without paychecks who should be able “to work it out,” as if they all have Dads to tide them over, to the broader economy and businesses who rely on government approval and data, something is going to have to give.
Limbaugh only has to talk a good game. Trump has to govern—and save face—which is why he asserted Wednesday his “absolute right” to declare a national emergency. The Hail Mary route, which will surely be shot down, gives Trump a way out. He’s not giving in to liberal Democrats or failing his base, coterminous with Limbaugh’s. He will be one more victim of overzealous federal judges he hasn’t had a chance to replace yet, defense hawks who don’t want their pot of money disturbed, and weak sisters moved by the guys with coffee trucks outside federal buildings losing their shirts.
Give Trump someone to blame—all the better if it’s lefty judges—and he’s home free. He’s declared victory over less.
It could end there with Trump having no choice but to give in to Democrats. Or everyone could win. Stymied by the courts, Trump could be forced to negotiate with Democrats who themselves should be worried that a stay out of the Ninth Circuit delaying Trump’s removal of protection for Dreamers won’t last forever. A 5-4 Supreme Court could lift it. That’s when we get back to the future with DACA resurrected and Trump signing a blood oath in public that he will support it in exchange for an appropriation with a 2, for billion, for vaguely defined border security.
That’s my guess of what’s in the envelope that can’t be found. Trump only has to reach in a drawer and pull it out.