President Trump Wants a Government Shutdown

Upset with a budget deal that shortchanges his priorities, he chooses pugnacity over deal making.

Joshua Roberts / Reuters

Chalk up one more first for the Donald Trump administration: a president saying the country needs a government shutdown. In a pair of tweets Tuesday morning, Trump raged against a recent deal to fund the government through September and said that the government needed a good shutdown when this deal runs out:

The tweets come after members of Congress struck a deal Sunday night to fund the government through September. “We’re very happy with it,” Trump told Bloomberg on Monday. But as my colleague Russell Berman wrote, the clear winners in the spending package were Democrats. Trump got no funding for his border wall; major cuts to departments, including the EPA and State Department, were not included; and the deal gave a bigger budget bump to the National Institutes of Health and former Vice President Biden’s “cancer moonshot” than border security. It is as though Trump only realized reading Tuesday morning’s papers—or watching Charles Krauthammer on Fox News Monday night—that he had been rolled.

There are at least four extraordinary things about his Twitter outburst:

  1. As a general rule, government shutdowns are considered a bad thing. The fact that this discussion is happening reflects not only Trump’s heterodox approach to the presidency, but also the fact that shutdowns have perhaps been normalized after multiple threats of shutdowns, and one actual closure, during the Obama administration. Leaders try to avoid shutting the government down because Americans prefer that the government function, and shutdowns tend to have unpopular effects like national park closures and delayed benefit checks. Perhaps Trump’s calculus is since Presidents Clinton and Obama ended up with the political upper hand after shutdowns, he will too. But that’s not a hard-and-fast rule, and there’s no precedent for the president actively demanding a shutdown. Trump flirted with a shutdown last week, but that looked at the time like a bargaining technique against Democrats. Maybe he really meant it!
  2. Moreover, how would a shutdown achieve the goals Trump wants? He seems to assume that in the ensuing game of chicken, his opponents would fold. “We'll see what happens. If there's a shutdown, there's a shutdown,” Trump told Reuters last week, saying Democrats would take the blame. But Democrats seem perfectly happy to court this fight. They were confident in their ability to win before a one-week funding resolution passed last week, and they can only be more confident after seeing the GOP cave first on that short-term funding and now on the longer-term deal.
  3. If Trump wants a shutdown, he can make that happen this week. The funding deal hasn’t been voted on—though all indications are it will pass—and Trump hasn’t signed it. If he thinks a shutdown would be good, all he has to do is refuse to sign the continuing resolution. Of course, maybe Trump thinks he’ll have more political capital come September than he does now, but who knows? This is a classic case of Trump wearing two hats. On the one hand, he is the president, with the ability to sign or veto the funding bill; on the other hand, he loves to play pundit, critiquing goings-on as though he’s merely a bystander.
  4. What’s up with the quotation marks? It’s odd that the president put “shutdown” inside scare quotes, and perhaps an augur of things to come. When he accused Obama of having “wiretapped” him, he later tried to use the quotation marks as an excuse for altering the substance of his claim. If the pattern holds, he’ll be claiming he never called for a shutdown by some time later this week.

Trump is facing right-wing backlash for the budget deal, and these tweets are likely designed to placate those conservative critics and shift the blame to Democrats. But Trump seems to have overcorrected by demanding a shutdown, a demand that could haunt him later. The president is constantly borrowing political capital against future earnings, making bold promises about the future, but at some point, that political debt might come due—and there’s no corporate bankruptcy in politics.

If ever there were a moment for a dealmaker in the White House, this would be it. The shutdown and near-misses during the Obama administration were sometimes blamed on that president’s allegedly poor negotiating skills. Republicans found him aloof and difficult to deal with. (Democrats told a different story, of Republicans leaders who could not control their caucuses enough to negotiate effectively.) Trump promised to fix that with his business experience. But despite his constant boasting about his negotiating prowess, the eagerness for a shutdown suggests a reluctance to roll up his sleeves and actually cut some deals.

As Trump’s tweets point out, any budget package that is not revenue neutral requires 60 votes for passage. Historically, most legislation required just a simple majority, but the increasing use of the filibuster has produced bipartisan frustration at a de facto 60-vote threshold for all legislation. With Neil Gorsuch’s confirmation to the Supreme Court, the Senate demolished the use of the filibuster to block judicial nominees. But senators have not shown a similar appetite for eliminating the legislative filibuster.

Alternatively, Trump could try to get to 60 votes by courting Democrats. But the president has shown no interest in doing that, either substantively, by offering them enticements, or rhetorically. During a Saturday night speech in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Trump ridiculed Senator Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.

Democrats in Congress have no leadership. They are rudderless. Senator Schumer is a bad leader. Schumer is weak on crime and wants to raise your taxes through the roof. He is a poor leader—I’ve known him a long time—and he is leading the Democrats to doom. It is sad to see for our country what is happening to the Democrat Party.

Trump also recently attacked Elizabeth Warren, a member of the Senate Democratic leadership, mocking her as “Pocahontas” for claiming Native American ancestry.

Meanwhile, Trump seems to be only slightly closer to congressional Republicans, who are bridling against him for demanding votes at certain times and for critiquing legislation, such as the health-care plan currently in progress in the House, from afar.

This approach to relations with both parties in Congress makes for good political theater, but it is not the sign of a man who is interested in dealmaking—nor is the plea for a shutdown.