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President Trump, Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer met for a televised Oval Office meeting on Tuesday and it was arguably the greatest 20 minutes of television that Washington has ever seen.
There was bickering, sighing, eye rolling, finger pointing, ridiculing, cross talk, and repeated pleas from Chuck and Nancy to take this “away from the cameras.” (Translated: Please can we just make this a backroom deal?)
“It’s called transparency!” Trump retorted to the third or fourth complaint from Pelosi about the public nature of the meeting.
Trump opened the discussion with statistics on the effectiveness of border walls, as well as apprehensions. Pelosi quickly claimed that Trump’s numbers “were not factual,” but at no point did she counter them with any of her own statistics. Or, as one might say, she did not offer any of her own alternative facts.
And then there was the politicking. At one point, Pelosi went on a rambling tear, claiming Trump’s policies lost the Republicans their House majority. Trump, reminding Pelosi that Republicans gained seats in the Senate, was interrupted by Schumer, who deadpanned to the observing press pool that “when the president brags that he won North Dakota and Indiana, he’s in real trouble.”
“But I did! But we did win North Dakota and Indiana!” Trump emphatically retorted, with what seemed to be a mixture of indignation and glee.
At another point, Trump commented that it was “difficult for Nancy to talk right now,” presumably referring to the fact that she has yet to secure the votes of her conference to assume her previous role as speaker of the House.
“Mr. President, please don’t characterize the strength that I bring to this meeting,” Pelosi replied tartly, in what will surely launch a cavalcade of feminist hashtags and memes, all of which will overlook the fact that Pelosi didn’t come out of the meeting looking particularly in charge of anything, least of all Trump.
The group therapy session meeting ended in a sparring match between Trump and Schumer, with Trump roaring that he would gladly shut down the government if Congress refused to give him the $5 billion he requested. “I will proudly shut down the government for border security,” he declared, leaving Schumer looking confused as to whether he should be pleased or terrified.
As soon as the meeting wrapped, Chuck and Nancy, who minutes before had been complaining about the cameras, ran straight to the cameras, where Pelosi promptly questioned Trump’s manhood. (And mangled the old adage about fighting with skunks.)
All of Washington took a collective breath and then lost their minds.
Journalists were “stunned.” A member of the New York Times editorial board lamented the next two years as a “freak show.” One departing GOP congressman told Politico (anonymously, of course) that he found the meeting “unbelievable. I literally couldn’t believe a president of the United States was acting that crazy.”
A few thoughts.
First, to the press pool and cable news hosts, I can’t even with you. This is the same group of people who routinely tout Trump as the “enemy of the press,” who loudly complain about access to the White House and moan about the lack of televised press conferences.
But then Trump gives them access to a real-time, high-stakes negotiation in the Oval Office no less, and what do they do? Feign indignation and bemoan it as “spectacle” and “a reality show.” Please. No one’s listening anymore. The fake sanctimony has grown so tiresome.
Second, as all of Washington should at least understand by now, this is how Trump does business. Sure, it’s unorthodox. But contra congressional Republicans, who flee in the face of Democrat narratives on immigration, Trump has decided to make Democrats own their policy positions in public—along with their hypocrisy.
This is not a president who is going to let Democrats demagogue him to the TV cameras while cutting deals with him behind closed doors. If they want to negotiate, they’ll have to publicly defend why they block legislation to fix family separation at the border; why, after losing their minds over U.S. Customs and Border Enforcement officers using tear gas to repel a border surge, they didn’t raise a single peep when President Obama allowed the use of tear gas against border surges more than 50 times during his administration; and why, after voting to authorize 700 miles of double layered fence in 2006, they refuse to cooperate on a border wall this time around.
Third, and perhaps most important as we creep toward the end of the year funding deadline, can we all stop obsessing over shutdowns?
The press and the GOP establishment are fixated on the idea of avoiding a shutdown, for which they assume Republicans will be blamed. They frantically tell anyone who will listen that they will avoid a shutdown at all costs—and in doing so, trade away all of their negotiating leverage.
If we’re going to generalize about shutdowns, it’s also worth pointing out that they don’t always fail. The 16-day government shutdown in 2013 was a public relations disaster for Republicans, according to the polls. But a year later, the voters handed the GOP broader control of the House, and a majority in the Senate for the first time in six years. The 1996 shutdown, for which Republicans were also blamed, resulted in the GOP winning a net gain of two seats in the Senate and only losing two seats in the House in the 1998 midterms. And let’s not forget the Democrat-led shutdown over DACA earlier this year, which was a boon for Senate Republicans.
If Republicans can tear themselves away from their anti-shutdown fixation, they might realize that going to the mat on border security is exactly what their base wants. Sixty-three percent of Americans want to see a deal on immigration that includes a border wall. A stunning 65 percent of Republicans do not think Trump should compromise on the issue.
On this, Trump seems to understand what congressional Republicans never have: there is no ability to compromise if threats aren’t made real. Pelosi and Schumer have made it clear they have no intention to work with Trump on this or much else. And the $1 billion they are offering as a “compromise” is so heavily restricted that it won’t allow construction of a wall.
Generally speaking, the answer from congressional Republicans in these cases is always to give lip service to negotiations, while privately planning to concede. But Trump is not a creature of Washington, and accordingly, he doesn’t play the same games. After asking Congress to fund his wall for two years, he is understandably out of patience.
Congressional Republicans have two choices. They can find the nerve and do the work necessary to fund the border wall. Or they can continue to fuss and bluster while doing absolutely nothing. The former would make them heroes to their base. The latter will simply confirm how wildly out of touch they are with what their voters want.
Photo Credit: Mark Wilson/Getty Images