The Memo: Trump veers between hard-liner, dealmaker on shutdown

President TrumpDonald John TrumpLev Parnas implicates Rick Perry, says Giuliani had him pressure Ukraine to announce Biden probe Saudi Arabia paid 0 million for cost of US troops in area Parnas claims ex-Trump attorney visited him in jail, asked him to sacrifice himself for president MORE is presenting himself as both a hard-liner and would-be dealmaker as the government shutdown hits the one-week mark.

It’s a mix that he may hope will throw off Democrats but also leaves some members of his own party unsure of his ultimate intentions.

On Friday morning, Trump unleashed a series of tweets threatening to seal the southern border and cut off U.S. aid to three Central American nations unless he got funding for a border wall.

But at other times this week he has struck a more flexible tone, suggesting that there is wriggle room on exactly what kind of structural barrier he would accept on the border and how much money he wants to see provided to build it.

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Those divergent signals are themselves testament to the political dynamics of the moment. 

Trump at one point this month seemed likely to sign a stopgap spending measure passed by the Senate that included no new funding for the border wall. He hardened his position only after coming under fire from conservative commentators who feared he was going soft on one of his signature campaign promises. 

One of those critics, radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh, later claimed that Trump “got word” to him that he would veto any spending measure that did not include wall funding.

But virtually no one in either party believes Trump has the leverage to extract the $5 billion in wall funding that he initially sought, given that Democrats will take control of the House on Jan. 3.

Allies of the president have sought to place the blame elsewhere for the partial government shutdown, which is affecting an estimated 800,000 federal workers. 

On Friday, incoming acting White House chief of staff Mick MulvaneyJohn (Mick) Michael MulvaneyCollins says she's 'likely' to support calling witnesses for impeachment trial Schumer doesn't rule out calling Parnas to testify in impeachment trial Paul predicts no Republicans will vote to convict Trump MORE and White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders both suggested that House Democratic Leader Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiOvernight Defense: GAO finds administration broke law by withholding Ukraine aid | Senate opens Trump trial | Pentagon to resume training Saudi students soon Hillicon Valley: FBI to now notify state officials of cyber breaches | Pelosi rips 'shameful' Facebook | 5G group beefs up lobby team | Spotify unveils playlists for pets Hill.TV's Saagar Enjeti on impeachment: 'CNN can see through this nonsense' MORE (Calif.) was being obstructionist, in part out of fear that she would fail to win the Speakership if she was seen as too accommodating toward Trump.

Talking with reporters in the White House driveway, Sanders claimed that Pelosi was “unwilling to actually do anything until she gets her Speakership.” 

Mulvaney, in a Fox News interview, sought to drive a wedge between Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerSchumer votes against USMCA, citing climate implications Senators are politicians, not jurors — they should act like it GOP senator: 2020 candidates must recuse themselves from impeachment trial MORE (D-N.Y.), saying that Schumer seemed “really interested in doing a deal and coming to some sort of compromise” but that Pelosi was not.

The likelihood of those tactics being successful seems questionable at best. Democrats look to be united in their opposition to a wall and believe that they have the political upper hand.

Once the new Congress convenes, Pelosi is expected to put legislation on the House floor that would reopen the government.

Some of Trump’s remarks suggest he knows that a compromise is inevitable.

Speaking briefly to reporters in the Oval Office on Christmas Day, Trump said that he wanted “a wall, a fence, whatever they’d like to call it. I’ll call it whatever they want.”

Asked on the same occasion whether the $5 billion figure he had sought was nonnegotiable, Trump responded that the matter was “complicated.”

Remarks like those hold open the door for a deal that might enable Trump to move away from his opening demands while still claiming some kind of victory. Democrats would also have political cover for a compromise if they merely permit funds for repair of existing border fencing, for example, rather than giving Trump money for his signature wall.

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Still, there was very limited movement on Friday toward ending the shutdown. Reporters from NBC and The Washington Post tweeted that the White House had reduced its demand to $2.5 billion but that Democrats had rebuffed the suggestion.

Mulvaney on Friday morning lamented that the Democrats had “left town” and said he did not expect to hear from them during the rest of the day.

Trump could come under increasing pressure as the shutdown begins to bite. If federal workers’ paychecks are delayed or those furloughed lose substantial income, the political perils would become much more pronounced.

Some conservatives are urging Trump to maintain a hard-line stance nonetheless.

Rep. Louie GohmertLouis (Louie) Buller GohmertRepublicans eye top spot on Natural Resources panel Sheila Jackson Lee tops colleagues in House floor speaking days over past decade Trump shocks, earns GOP rebukes with Dingell remarks MORE (R-Texas) told “Fox & Friends” on Friday that the president should hold the line “till hell freezes over.” Gohmert is a member of the right-wing House Freedom Caucus. The group’s chairman, Rep. Mark MeadowsMark Randall MeadowsRepublicans criticize Pelosi for gifting pens used to sign impeachment articles Trump, Democrats set for brawl on Iran war powers Overnight Defense: Iran crisis eases as Trump says Tehran 'standing down' | Dems unconvinced on evidence behind Soleimani strike | House sets Thursday vote on Iran war powers MORE (R-N.C.), told CNN on Thursday that “We could be in for a very long-term shutdown.”

Conservatives believe it is now or never for funding for a border wall, given the incoming Democratic House majority. 

But Democrats insist the answer to that conundrum is “never.” Schumer and Pelosi have sought to label the current impasse the “Trump shutdown” — an effort that was made easier by the president’s fractious meeting with them earlier this month when he said he would be “proud” to shut down the government over border security.

Mulvaney claimed in his Fox News interview that the president was engaged in the search for a solution on "almost a minute by minute” basis. 

But what Trump is willing to agree to is still the $5 billion question.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.