Stage­craft won’t win shut­down bat­tle for Trump

The Reporter (Lansdale, PA) - - LOCAL NEWS - By Cather­ine Lucey

WASH­ING­TON >> Mil­i­tary salutes. Heaps of con­tra­band. Oval Of­fice op­tics.

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, who has long put a premium on stage­craft, is dis­cov­er­ing he can­not re­solve the par­tial gov­ern­ment shut­down sim­ply by putting on a show.

With the stand­off over pay­ing for his long-promised U.S.-Mex­ico wall drag­ging on, the pres­i­dent’s Oval Of­fice ad­dress and visit to the Texas bor­der this past week failed to break the log­jam. Aides and al­lies are fear­ful that he has mis­judged Demo­cratic re­solve and is run­ning out of ne­go­ti­at­ing op­tions.

Us­ing the trap­pings of the White House to make a point is a stan­dard pro­ce­dure. Dra­matic pub­lic dis­plays have been Trump’s ne­go­ti­at­ing go-to. But even Trump was skep­ti­cal that the speech and trip would make a dif­fer­ence.

Some in the White House ar­gue that Trump’s moves helped push his mes­sage. But many as­so­ci­ates fear his hand is weak­en­ing as his ef­forts to de­fine the stakes must com­pete with the tes­ti­mo­ni­als of hard­ship from fed­eral work­ers and peo­ple in need of shut­tered gov­ern­ment ser­vices. That may leave a na­tional emer­gency dec­la­ra­tion as Trump’s only es­cape path — one more showy strat­egy that could back­fire.

Trump de­fended his ap­proach Satur­day, telling crit­ics on Twit­ter that “there’s al­most no­body in the W.H. but me, and I do have a plan on the Shut­down.” Dur­ing a tele­phone in­ter­view with a Fox News Chan­nel host later that night, Trump in­sisted that he hadn’t “left the White House in months” and he called on Democrats to come to the ta­ble. The Texas trip was two days ear­lier.

For­mer Trump cam­paign aide Sam Nun­berg said Trump was sim­ply us­ing all avail­able tools. Nun­berg ar­gued that Trump’s bor­der visit, which in­cluded an in­ter­view on the pres­i­dent’s pre­ferred net­work, Fox News, was “not go­ing to win any hearts and minds.” But he added that the Oval Of­fice ad­dress was a “great op­por­tu­nity” for Trump to make his case to an au­di­ence of mil­lions well be­yond his most loyal sup­port­ers.

In a mo­ment of deep po­lit­i­cal di­vi­sions, though, the pres­i­den­tial mega­phone does not seem to hold the power it once did.

Demo­cratic lead­ers have dis­missed Trump’s tac­tics. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., last week de­cry­ing the “soap opera that the pres­i­dent’s petu­lance and ob­sti­nance is cre­at­ing.”

Trump’s visit to McAllen, Texas was staged for max­i­mum im­pact.

At a bor­der pa­trol fa­cil­ity, he sur­veyed mounds of drugs and weapons seized by agents. He hugged tear­ful fam­i­lies who spoke of rel­a­tives killed by those in the United States il­le­gally. He trav­eled to a dusty bluff above the Rio Grande and saluted a bor­der pa­trol he­li­copter as it flew past.

The stop was in­tended to re­in­force Trump’s claims of chaos and cri­sis at the bor­der, but it was no­table for what was left out. The con­tra­band was de­signed to em­pha­size the dan­gers of an un­se­cured bor­der. But there was only pass­ing men­tion that the drugs were in­ter­cepted at of­fi­cial points of en­try, not in open ar­eas where Trump wants to build a wall. Trump did meet with vic­tims and agents, but he did not go to a nearby fa­cil­ity where hun­dreds of the mi­grant chil­dren were de­tained in cages af­ter be­ing sep­a­rated from their par­ents last year.

Al­lies say Trump has dug in for good rea­son: build­ing a wall has al­ways been a sure-fire ap­plause line for Trump. Some, how­ever, be­lieve it has be­come a po­lit­i­cal al­ba­tross.

Trump promised the wall dur­ing his cam­paign as part of his im­mi­gra­tion plat­form. At his ral­lies, he en­cour­aged sup­port­ers to chant “Build the wall! Build the wall!” and he pledged that Mex­ico would pay for it.

Since com­ing to the White House, he has failed to get Mex­ico to pay for the wall and has strug­gled to ad­vance his im­mi­gra­tion poli­cies in Congress, even when Repub­li­cans were in full con­trol of both cham­bers. With Democrats now in the ma­jor­ity in the House, his lever­age has dwin­dled.

In­creas­ingly, many around Trump think that the only way out of the shut­down im­passe is for the pres­i­dent to de­clare a na­tional emer­gency to try and pay for the wall by di­vert­ing fed­eral funds from other pro­grams. They rea­son that such a dec­la­ra­tion would wind up in court, but Trump could re­open gov­ern­ment in the mean­time and say he was con­tin­u­ing the fight for the wall dur­ing the le­gal fight. It’s a play that would be in keep­ing with Trump’s pat­tern of claim­ing vic­tory even when the cir­cum­stances are murky.

In June, Trump de­clared his sum­mit with North Ko­rea’s Kim Jong Un was a ground­break­ing achieve­ment although it yielded only a vaguely worded com­mit­ment from the North to de­nu­cle­arize. In Novem­ber, Trump claimed his­toric wins in the midterm elec­tions even though Repub­li­cans lost con­trol of the House. In early 2017, he held a Rose Gar­den cel­e­bra­tion af­ter a health care over­haul passed the House, seek­ing to claim the vic­tory be­fore it passed both cham­bers, which it never did.

Trump’s pub­lic pos­tur­ing has moved the nee­dle at times. His ad­min­is­tra­tion’s push helped get a tax over­haul over the fin­ish line. His tar­iffs fight with China has brought both sides to the ne­go­ti­at­ing ta­ble.

Still, as Trump tries to find a way out of the shut­down im­passe, Repub­li­can con­sul­tant Rick Tyler ar­gued that some of the pres­i­dent’s ploys may be get­ting stale.

“There’s a rea­son the cir­cus comes to town for a week,” he said. “He’s worn out his act.”

AP PHOTO/ EVAN VUCCI, FILE

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump tours the U.S. bor­der with Mex­ico on Thurs­day at the Rio Grande on the south­ern bor­der in McAllen, Texas.

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