The ‘Bright Spot’ for Trump in the Government Shutdown

The president used the closures as justification for skipping the World Economic Forum, in Davos. But he’s never shown a desire to engage with voters or leaders who challenge him.

Evan Vucci / AP

In a world in which the U.S. government is functioning somewhat normally, the president right now would be preparing for his delegation’s trip to the World Economic Forum, in Davos, Switzerland, next week. Once there, he would mingle with foreign leaders. He would likely endure a series of speeches on the promises of globalization and the perils of climate change. As he did last year, he might deliver his own remarks extolling the progress of America under his leadership.

But this is not the world in which we live. And in at least one respect, Donald Trump couldn’t be happier about it.

Friday marked day 28 of the partial government shutdown. In the past month, many Americans have missed paychecks, navigated long lines at airports, and watched as Republicans and Democrats advance a cold war of sorts over federal funding that shows no signs of ending. Polling indicates that most voters blame the president for the standoff. But according to a half dozen of his associates, Trump is taking comfort in one consequence of the chaos: He doesn’t have to go to Davos.

“The shutdown gave him the easiest out ever,” said one former senior White House official who, like the other associates I talked to, spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to share their conversations with and impressions of the president. “That’s the bright spot for him in all this.”

Perhaps the most relatable thing about Donald Trump is that he revels in canceled plans, and specifically those that require him to leave his home and television set behind. On January 10, the president announced that he would no longer be making the journey overseas. “Because of the Democrats intransigence on Border Security and the great importance of Safety for our Nation, I am respectfully cancelling my very important trip to Davos, Switzerland for the World Economic Forum. My warmest regards and apologies to the @WEF!” he tweeted. On Thursday, the White House announced that the rest of the U.S. delegation, including Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, wouldn’t be attending either.

Despite the conciliatory tone in Trump’s statement, those close to him say they weren’t fooled. “Getting him ready for overseas trips was always a struggle. He’s always like, Why do we have to do this shit?” another former senior White House official told me. “He likes control and being around his own people, and in Davos he didn’t feel like he had either of those things.”

The president’s apparent giddiness about skipping Davos reflects his broader disdain for travel. Trump has lived in a tighter bubble than most American presidents. He prefers to leave the White House for one of two destinations: Mar-a-Lago—his Palm Beach, Florida, resort—or a campaign rally, where he can feed off the energy from his supporters and enjoy playing the part of master of ceremonies.

That’s why his decision on Davos, to the officials, was so unsurprising. At rallies and at his homes, surrounded largely by people who support him, Trump can be himself, touting the same lines and arguments from the campaign trail to little criticism. On the world stage, however, Trump is forced to contend with leaders who have ideas and styles drastically different from his own. That’s been true for every president, but rather than embrace it, Trump seems to actively look for opportunities to avoid it—a proclivity that likely impedes his ability to champion the country around the globe.

“The president hates traveling, but when he does, he’d much rather travel to a rally where he’s surrounded by regular people than something where he has to rub elbows with global elites,” a third former White House official said. “It makes him uncomfortable.”

Trump’s performance at last year’s Davos summit illustrated his lack of awareness of, or perhaps indifference to, the protocol for international junkets. In his speech, he omitted any mention of geopolitics or the international issues that thread through most WEF addresses. Instead, he lauded himself as America’s first “businessman” to become president, and predicted that his overhaul of the tax code would spur billions of dollars in new jobs and investments in the U.S. In a question-and-answer session following his speech, he decried the press as “nasty, vicious, and fake.” (And, ironically in light of the current gridlock, he said he believed that bipartisan immigration reform was just around the corner.)

Often, the president’s gripes are less about the travel itself than they are about the accommodations. Staffers said their first priority in scheduling political trips is to avoid overnight stays, because Trump dislikes hotels that aren’t his—he thinks they’re “dirty,” three of the sources said.

For that reason, in 2016 aides tried to get Trump back to his own bed in Manhattan as regularly as possible. (Trump did, however, grow somewhat fond of Holiday Inn Express hotels, the first former senior official told me, noting that he liked their TV setup. Even now, as president, Trump deeply misses his own television in the White House residence when he’s away, another official said—the president refers to it as his “super TiVo.”) Whereas most other candidates bookended rallies with stays at motels or in RVs, after his events Trump used one of his private planes or his helicopter to head back to his gilded Trump Tower apartment. At the time, American Conservative Union Chairman Matt Schlapp, now one of the president’s most outspoken supporters, criticized the habit, arguing that Trump’s lack of personal, one-on-one interactions with voters could cost the then-candidate.

Leaving his home, his routine, his super TiVo—the prospect has even caused some trips to be dramatically shortened or scrapped altogether, as the Associated Press reported in November. The outlet pointed to a planned trip to Colombia earlier that month, which the White House canceled after “citing unspecified scheduling concerns.” The AP noted that Trump’s public schedule at the time didn’t “reveal any significant conflicts.” Earlier in 2018, the AP added, the White House canceled another South America trip, citing Trump’s “need to focus on the crisis in Syria.” Now he can add Davos to that list of would-be destinations.

Just because Trump is home and in his element doesn’t mean that he’s any closer to a shutdown solution, as the impact on federal workers snowballs daily. And there’s little sign he’ll use his proximity to the Hill to negotiate with his opponents, as his feud with Democratic leaders appears to grow more toxic. But at the very least, the burden of preparing for a taxpayer-funded jaunt to Switzerland to trade ideas with many of the world’s most powerful leaders won’t weigh heavily on the president’s mind.