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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 16 February 2019

Donald Trump declares he’ll never back down in shutdown fight

President spent weekend in White House reaching out to politicians and tweeting aggressively about Democratic foes

Mr Trump rejected a suggestion to reopen all government departments for several weeks while negotiations would continue. AFP
Mr Trump rejected a suggestion to reopen all government departments for several weeks while negotiations would continue. AFP

With the government mired in week four of a shutdown, President Donald Trump rejected a short-term legislative fix and dug in for more combat on Monday, declaring he would “never ever back down.”

Mr Trump rejected a suggestion to reopen all government departments for several weeks while negotiations would continue with Democrats over his demands for $5.7 billion for a long, impregnable wall along the US-Mexico border. The president also edged further away from the idea of trying to declare a national emergency to circumvent Congress.

“I’m not looking to call a national emergency,” Mr Trump said. “This is so simple we shouldn’t have to.”

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No cracks were apparent in the president’s deadlock with lawmakers after a weekend with no negotiations at all. His ruling out the short-term option proposed by Republican Senator Lindsey Graham removed one path forward, and little else was in sight. Congressional Republicans were watching Mr Trump for a signal for how to move next, and Democrats have not budged from their refusal to fund the wall and their demand that he reopen government before border talks resume.

The effect of the 24-day partial government closure was being felt around the country. Some 800,000 federal workers missed paychecks, deepening anxieties about mortgage payments and unpaid bills, and about half of them were off the job, cutting off some services. Travelers at the Atlanta airport, the nation’s busiest, dealt with waits of more than an hour on Monday as no-shows by security screeners soared.

Mr Trump spent the weekend in the White House reaching out to aides and lawmakers and tweeting aggressively about Democratic foes as he tried to make the case that the wall was needed on both security and humanitarian grounds. He stressed that argument repeatedly during a speech at a farming convention in New Orleans on Monday, insisting there was “no substitute” for a wall or a barrier along the southern border.

The president has continued to insist he has the power to sign an emergency declaration to deal with what he says is a crisis of drug smuggling and trafficking of women and children at the border. But he now appears to be in no rush to make such a declaration.

Instead, he is focused on pushing Democrats to return to the negotiating table — though he walked out of the most recent talks last week — and seized on the fact that a group of House and Senate Democrats were on a retreat in Puerto Rico. Democrats, he argued, were partying on a beach rather than negotiating — though Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer were not on the trip.

He left their session at the White House last Wednesday after Ms Pelosi told him she would not agree to fund the border wall even if he reopened the government. He called the meeting a “total waste of time.”

White House officials cautioned that an emergency order remains on the table. Many inside and outside the White House hold that it may be the best option to end the standoff, reopening the government while allowing Mr Trump to tell his base supporters he didn’t cave on the wall.

However, some GOP lawmakers —as well as White House aides— have counselled against it, concerned that an emergency declaration would immediately be challenged in court. Others have raised concerns about re-routing money from other projects, including money Congress approved for disaster aid. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have warned that acting under an emergency order would set a troubling precedent for executive power.

For now, Mr Trump apparently sees value in his extended fight to fulfil a key campaign pledge, knowing that his supporters — who he’ll need to turn out in 2020 to win re-election — don’t want to see him back down.

With negotiations stuck, the White House is considering reaching out to rank-and-file Democrats rather than just the leaders to see if they can build any consensus for the wall, though it’s uncertain whether any would respond. Ms Pelosi and Mr Schumer remain the only ones with the power to make a deal.

Mr Trump was taking a wide range of advice on both sides of the issue, including from his new chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, senior aide and son-in-law Jared Kushner, and Representative Mark Meadows, as well as outside political advisers.

In the House, Democrats look to keep the pressure on Mr Trump by holding votes this week on two bills: one that would reopen the government until February 1, and a second that would reopen it until February 28.

Representative Nita Lowey of New York, the top Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, said the bills offer “additional options” to end the shutdown and would give lawmakers time for negotiations on border security and immigration.

Meanwhile, small groups of senators have started to gather on their own in hopes of finding a path forward. Senators from both parties met last week in Mr Graham’s office, and several Senate Republicans also met with vice president Mike Pence in hopes of finding a broader deal on immigration.

A key question is how long Mr Trump is willing to hold out in hopes of extracting concessions from Democrats.

Recent polling finds a slight majority of Americans opposed to building a wall along the US-Mexico border – and few see the situation at the border as a crisis – but views are predictably divided by partisanship.

Polls also show that Americans are more likely to fault Mr Trump for the shutdown. A large majority of Democrats put responsibility on the president, a slightly smaller majority of Republicans blame Democrats. A modest share of Republicans either hold Mr Trump responsible or say it’s both sides at fault.

A Washington Post-ABC News poll published on January 13 finds that 54 per cent of Americans oppose a wall along the border, while 42 per cent express support for it. Fully 87 percent of Republicans favour the wall, compared with about as many Democrats (84 per cent) who are opposed.

Updated: January 15, 2019 03:20 PM

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