If ever there were a time for a dealmaker in Washington, this weekend was it. Friday, as a shutdown loomed, it seemed as though Republicans and Democrats would be able to reach some accommodation to fund the government, but in the wake of that failure, the mood turned bitter over the weekend.
With leaders in Congress at an impasse, the most logical person to step in and broker an arrangement was the president of the United States. That’s usually the case, but it’s especially true now, with a president whose name, thanks to his first book, is practically synonymous with deals. And yet, Donald Trump remained strangely absent. Oh, sure, the president was tweeting, but he offered mostly uncharacteristically bland restatements of the White House line that it was all Democrats’ fault. After meeting with Democratic leader Chuck Schumer on Friday, Trump stayed largely on the sidelines.
Late Monday morning, leaders of Congress struck a deal to reopen the government, without any apparent help from Trump—though the deal is only a short-term agreement, and resolves none of the issues that sparked the shutdown in the first place, setting up the prospect of a similar shutdown in the near future.
The deal was struck between Schumer and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. “The great dealmaking president sat on the sidelines,” Schumer said on Monday, as he announced the arrangement, accusing Trump of being unwilling to “take yes for an answer.”
So many times in this presidency, the president’s opponents have prayed for his aides to control the impulsive, untutored Trump, while Trump’s own self-styled defenders have demanded that Trump be allowed to be Trump. The shutdown brought about a strange role-reversal: It was moderates and Democrats who wished that aides would let Trump be his volatile self, while his staff desperately tried to get him to stick to the positions he had laid out. A strange picture emerged from the White House of a president who wanted to make a deal, but whose staff will not allow him to do so. Even more strangely, the staff won.
Schumer memorably summed his view of the situation up Friday. The Democrat claims he thought he and the president had more or less reached a deal during their meeting Friday afternoon. Republicans had in fact feared Schumer would roll Trump and get him to agree to a resolution favorable to Democrats. After Schumer left, he and Trump kept in touch, but they grew further apart on a deal.
“What’s even more frustrating than President Trump’s intransigence is the way he seems amenable to these compromises before completely switching positions and backing off,” Schumer said on the Senate floor. “Negotiating with President Trump is like negotiating with Jell-O.”
Schumer and other Democrats blamed immigration hardliners and especially senior aide Stephen Miller for blocking Trump from making the deal he wanted to make. They have their own political motives for this line of argument (and for the “President Miller” jokes), but a similar picture emerged from other accounts. Senator Lindsey Graham, whose hot-and-cold friendship with the president has become riveting, groused, “I’ve talked with the president—his heart is right on this issue. He’s got a good understanding of what will sell, and every time we have a proposal it is only yanked back by staff members.” He added: “As long as Stephen Miller is in charge of negotiating immigration, we are going nowhere.”
Reporting from the White House suggested a slightly more balanced story: It’s not just Miller. Chief of Staff John Kelly, formerly the hardline secretary of homeland security, called Schumer Friday to tell him the deal was off, according to The New York Times. On two occasions before the shutdown, Trump expressed an interest in making a deal, only to have Kelly and Miller tell lawmakers any arrangement needed more immigration enforcement. The Washington Post reported that Kelly, congressional liaison Marc Short, and budget chief Mick Mulvaney all pressured Trump not to reopen negotiations with Schumer over the weekend.
“Whether Trump remains in his behind-the-scenes role is unclear—he is ‘itching’ to be involved and constantly watching TV, according to a senior White House official,” the paper reported. “One adviser who speaks to Trump frequently said he ‘always wants a deal.’”
In purely tactical terms, it’s hard to fault these White House aides. Republicans already feel that Schumer rolled Trump during a September meeting. They are aware of his tendency to go with the last thing he hears, and they have seen foreign leaders easily manipulate Trump in face-to-face meetings over and over. Moreover, giving in would confirm the flaw that people across the political spectrum ascribe to the president: the tendency to impulsively abandon long-held, carefully planned White House positions without warning. Now, for once, the staff has managed to corral Trump. It just happened to be on an issue of murky political benefit, and with the functioning of the federal government at stake.
As a matter of political strategy, there may be some wisdom to Trump staying out of it. He remains pulled between the hardline immigration position he took during the campaign (and the one favored by aides like Miller and Kelly and Trump’s base) and the more moderate (and broadly popular) tack he has suggested since then, practically begging Congress to replace DACA. To cut a deal, Trump would have to pin himself down somewhere, and that would alienate either the base or the majority, or perhaps both. Better to allow Schumer and McConnell to take the respective arrows.
Even worse for Trump would be getting involved, throwing away his carefully won ambiguity, and then failing to strike a deal. Last March, during one of several failed attempts by the president to intervene in the Obamacare repeal effort, I wrote that Trump’s reputation as a dealmaker rested largely on salesmanship, while in reality his business career was pocked with repeated, major failures. Those missteps are more quickly and easily forgotten in the business world than they are in politics. Trump could scarcely withstand another failed deal in Washington.
The downside is that when a leader abdicates leadership, he imperils his position as a leader. Or as one noted author pithily put it a few years back:
Leadership: Whatever happens, you're responsible. If it doesn't happen, you're responsible.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 8, 2013
Often fixated on appearing active and virile, Trump has come off as passive and distant in the current crisis. Even worse, this is exactly the approach he accused Barack Obama of using in 2013, saying the then-president had failed to get all the players together and hash out a compromise. Trump knows this, too—a White House aide told the Times that the president had spent the weekend watching clips of himself attacking Obama at the time.
“Unfortunately, he has never been a dealmaker,” Trump told Greta van Susteren in October 2013. “That wasn’t his expertise before he went into politics and it’s obviously not his expertise now.”
Whether through inability or choice, by his own decision or through the intervention of aides, there’s a growing sense that dealmaking isn’t Trump’s expertise now, either.