The longest-ever shutdown of the federal government lasted 21 days.
To hear President Donald Trump talk on Friday afternoon, that record—set at around this time 23 years ago, during the Clinton administration—could soon be demolished. During a two-hour meeting that both parties acknowledged was contentious, the president told Democratic leaders that the current partial shutdown of federal departments and agencies could stretch on for “months or even years” if they do not yield on funding for his southern-border wall, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer told reporters.
Trump confirmed making the threat—“I absolutely said it,” he boasted—during his own, much lengthier press conference about an hour later, digging in on the border impasse even as he directed Vice President Mike Pence to lead talks with a team of congressional negotiators over the weekend. “I don’t think it will, but I am prepared,” Trump said in the Rose Garden outside the White House, where he was flanked by Pence, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, and the top two Republicans in the House.
The White House meeting, followed by the dueling press conferences, seemed to be more spectacle than substance: The stalemate that shut down the government on December 22 seems no closer to a resolution, and the two parties appear to have made no discernible progress despite hours of in-person, high-level talks and a transfer of power to Democrats in the House. Schumer and Speaker Nancy Pelosi offered little hope for a quick agreement during their brief appearance before reporters.
Trump’s message, meanwhile, was dizzyingly dissonant. He tried to present a rosier picture of the situation even as he simultaneously threatened to keep the government shuttered indefinitely and suggested that he could declare a national emergency to have the wall built without congressional approval. At one point, he said he had “a great meeting” with Pelosi, Schumer, and other congressional leaders. He predicted the shutdown would be “over sooner than people think.” But in the next breath, he said he was girding for a lengthy fight. “If we have to stay out for a very long period of time, we’re going to do that,” Trump declared. Regarding an emergency declaration, he said, “We can call a national emergency and build it very quickly, and it’s another way of doing it.”
The president also shrugged off concerns about the welfare of the hundreds of thousands of federal employees who will go without paychecks for the duration of the shutdown. Despite polls showing that a plurality of the public blames him for the closures, Trump claimed that most federal workers supported his demand for wall funding. “I believe a lot of them want to see border security and they’re willing to give it up,” the president claimed. He ignored questions asking him for evidence or details backing up his assertion. At another point, he said a former president had told him he regretted not building a wall during his time in office. Trump did not say which one. The only living Republican ex-president is George W. Bush, who signed legislation authorizing fencing at the southern border but who has never publicly voiced support for Trump’s proposed wall.
Friday’s White House meeting came a day after Democrats reclaimed the House majority and installed Pelosi as speaker for the second time. Within hours of taking over, they passed two bills aimed at reopening the government, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said neither will get a vote in the Senate, because they lack Trump’s support.
Trump’s challenge, however, may be wavering Republican support. Seven GOP lawmakers in the House sided with Democrats on one of the bills to reopen the government, and two Republican senators, Cory Gardner of Colorado and Susan Collins of Maine, have called for votes on legislation even if it lacks funding for a wall. McConnell was noticeably absent from Trump’s Rose Garden press conference despite attending the meeting that preceded it.
The majority leader has signaled that he’ll follow Trump’s lead on the negotiations rather than pit his members against the president. So far, a president who likes setting records is leading his party fast toward another one, however dubious an achievement it might be.