Trump’s Reality Show in the Oval Office

During a photo op that morphed into a bizarre spectacle, the president brawled with Democratic leaders over funding his border wall.

Evan Vucci / Associated Press

It was clear almost immediately at the start of Trump’s administration that Mexico would not be funding a border wall. Two years in, it’s unclear whether the United States will ever be funding one either.

On Tuesday, the president gathered in the Oval Office with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to negotiate the terms of spending bills needed to keep the government open. The pressure point, as it has been for nearly every spending fight in the 115th Congress, was the wall: Trump demanded $5 billion to fund it, and Schumer and Pelosi refused to budge.

The three sparred openly in front of reporters, with Trump threatening a shutdown over wall funding in one of the more bizarre spectacles of this administration. “The experts say you can do border security without a wall, which totally does not solve the problem,” Schumer said.

“It does solve the problem,” Trump shot back.

“If we don’t get what we want, one way or the other … I will shut down the government,” Trump affirmed. “And I am proud.”

The scene emblematized Trump’s preference for showmanship over deal making. Reporters were stunned as the president invited them to witness talks over something as tenuous as a partial government shutdown. What unfolded before them was a series of interruptions, schoolyard jabs, and cross talk over topics that spanned well beyond appropriations bills. In other words, Trump got his show. But he got no deal.

According to a senior House Democratic aide, Pelosi and Schumer entered the Oval prepared to offer Trump a year-long continuation of current funding levels. One White House official warned me last night, though, that their proposal would be a nonstarter. “The president said that he wants $5 billion. It’s crystal clear, and we’re executing to it,” the official said. “It’s a red line. He’s willing to shut it down. He’s willing to own it.”

Their offer was indeed a nonstarter. Trump kicked off the impromptu press conference/negotiating session by quipping to Schumer that the wall would be “the easiest of all” issues to resolve. Schumer was cold in his response: “It’s called funding the government, Mr. President.”

Trump then repeated inaccurately that “tremendous amounts of wall have already been built.” (In fact, just over two miles of border wall has been completed south of San Diego. The bulk of funding over the past two years, as Trump partially notes, has gone to renovations and repairs of existing fencing.) He said that “once the wall was up,” illegal border crossings in San Diego “dropped 92 percent.” He cited a substantial decrease in crossings in El Paso, Texas, and two Arizona cities, Tucson and Yuma. “The only reason we have any percentage where people got through is because they walk and go around areas that aren’t built,” Trump added.

The Democrats were unmoved. “I think the American people recognize that we must keep government open,” Pelosi said. “That a shutdown is not worth anything, and that you should not have a ‘Trump shutdown.’”

Pelosi claimed that Trump didn’t have the votes to pass his proposal, even in the House. “Nancy, I do,” Trump said, cutting her off. “It doesn’t matter, though, because we can’t get it passed in the Senate, because we need 10 Democrats.”

“If I needed the votes for the wall in the House,” Trump added, “I would have them in one session. It would be done.”

“Then go do it,” Pelosi said.

“It doesn’t help—” Trump began, before Pelosi cut him off and the conversation continued along its circular route.

Trump reframed his pitch for the wall, noting that border agents had “caught 10 terrorists over a short period of time.”

Schumer again was unmoved. He stressed that he and Pelosi wanted to come to an agreement: “We have solutions that will pass the House and Senate right now and will not shut down the government.”

The moments that followed felt scripted for a parodic television series on government. Pelosi told Trump his leadership had resulted in “50 people in the Republican Party” losing their House seats. Trump has been all but unwilling post-midterm elections to acknowledge the blue wave that swept the House, preferring to tout the party’s Senate gains. Which is exactly what he did on Tuesday in the Oval Office, interrupting “Nancy” to remind her. “Excuse me,” he prodded, “did we win the Senate? We won the Senate.”

In a fitting coda to the schoolyard dustup over election results, Schumer piped in: “When the president brags that he won North Dakota and Indiana, he’s in trouble.”

The episode looped back to the reason they were there—to reach an agreement on how to avoid a partial government shutdown on December 21. And viewers were offered a peek at just how fraught divided government will prove to be.

The three capped off their meeting reiterating their same points, digging in on their same stances. But luckily for Democrats, Trump’s ardency extended to his willingness to shut down the government—and take ownership of it. “I am proud to shut down the government for border security, Chuck,” Trump said. “The people of this country don’t want criminals and people that have lots of problems and drugs pouring into our country. I will take the mantle. I will be the one to shut it down. I’m not going to blame you.”

It certainly wasn’t welcome news for Republicans, who’d just lost their ability to pin a potential shutdown on Democrats. And it certainly wasn’t good news for government workers whose agencies could be in limbo just before the holidays.

Yet Trump seemed almost serene by the meeting’s end, as though he’d orchestrated precisely the reality-show segment he’d hoped for.

As Schumer continued the discussion about whether Trump would shut down the government, the president leaned toward the press. A reporter had just asked about his next chief of staff, and Trump dove in, ready to direct the next scene.