The president blinked.
Donald Trump wants his border wall funded, but he apparently wants to keep the government open on his 100th day in office a little bit more. Facing the prospect of a government shutdown in four days, the president reportedly backed off his demand that a must-pass spending bill include a downpayment for the wall he wants to construct along the nation’s southern border. Trump told a group of conservative journalists on Monday evening that he would be willing to accept money for the wall during the next government-funding debate in September, effectively defusing a clash that had been building between Capitol Hill and the White House ahead of the April 28 deadline to avert a partial shutdown.
The president’s softening line wasn’t all that surprising. Democrats had held firm against funding the wall from the start, and Republican leaders were in no mood for a countdown-clock showdown so early in Trump’s tenure and after they had already muffed their attempt to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. A battle over the wall, they reasoned, could come later. Not even the president seemed to have his heart fully in the fight—neither he nor his top advisers would take the necessary step of actually threatening to veto a spending bill that did not include some of the $1.4 billion the administration had requested to begin development of the wall.
Trump’s bigger worry may be of a pattern beginning to emerge. In March, the president sent his staff to deliver a well-publicized ultimatum to House Republicans: Pass the leadership’s health-care bill, or Trump would leave Obamacare in place and move on to other issues. The lawmakers balked, and a month later, it became clear the president was bluffing. He’s now back on health care and insisting he never left.
Democrats were quick to accept the president’s willingness to back off from the shutdown brink. “The president’s comments this evening are welcome news given the bipartisan opposition to the wall, and the obstacle it has been to the continuing bipartisan negotiations in the appropriations committees,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said in a statement. Her Senate counterpart, Chuck Schumer, added: “It's good for the country that President Trump is taking the wall off the table in these negotiations. Now the bipartisan and bicameral negotiators can continue working on the outstanding issues.”
The two parties must still agree on how much additional money to appropriate for defense, how much they might give the president for border security that doesn’t include building the wall, and whether Congress will tell the Trump administration to continue making subsidy payments to health insurers as part of Obamacare. But the wall had become the chief sticking point, and lawmakers were confident of avoiding a shutdown if Trump did not insist on its funding.
Perhaps Democrats thought if they praised the president fast enough, he wouldn’t have time to reverse himself. Indeed, by the morning, Trump was tweeting again about the wall.
Don't let the fake media tell you that I have changed my position on the WALL. It will get built and help stop drugs, human trafficking etc.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 25, 2017
Nobody believes the president has given up entirely on building the wall; the issue is whether Congress will start funding it now. Trump’s tweet was not a veto threat. There’s still time for Trump to change his mind again and confront the Democrats. Assuming he doesn’t, however, his tactical retreat might benefit him in the short run. A government shutdown would have been an ignominious, if perhaps fitting, coda to Trump’s first 100 days in office. But for a man who boasts about his negotiating skills and likes to keep his opponents guessing, a second called bluff in a month suggests the new president might, to his great dismay, be a tad too predictable.