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The Memo: Trump sows fresh confusion on shutdown

President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump alludes to possible 2024 run in White House remarks Trump threatens to veto defense bill over tech liability shield Tiger King's attorney believes they're close to getting pardon from Trump MORE declared the partial government shutdown could last for more than a year during a White House news conference on Friday. On the other hand, he said, it could end early next week.

His remarks sowed confusion rather than clarity about a possible way out of the impasse, which on Saturday enters its 15th day.

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The contours of the dispute remain unaltered: Trump is insisting on money for a border wall and Democrats are adamant they won’t give it to him.

The president’s rhetoric oscillated between hard-line and conciliatory during a news conference so lengthy that Trump — not known for his solicitousness toward the media — asked reporters at one point whether he should keep it going. Assured that he should, he told the press corps to let him know "when you get tired.”

At one point, Trump asserted he could declare a national emergency to build his proposed wall without the acquiescence of Capitol Hill.

“I can do it if I want,” the president said, “I am allowed to do that.”

But at the same time as he dangled that threat, the president offered a more upbeat assessment of his meeting with Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiPressure builds for coronavirus relief with no clear path to deal Top GOP senator warns government funding deal unlikely this week Houston will send residents checks of up to ,200 for pandemic relief MORE (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerMcConnell: COVID-19 relief will be added to omnibus spending package Overnight Health Care: Moderna to apply for emergency use authorization for COVID-19 vaccine candidate | Hospitals brace for COVID-19 surge | US more than doubles highest number of monthly COVID-19 cases The five biggest challenges facing President-elect Biden MORE (D-N.Y.) than the Democratic leaders themselves had done a short time before, when they spoke briefly to reporters outside the West Wing.

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To Pelosi, the meeting was “lengthy and sometimes contentious.” To Trump, it was “very, very good.”

The president said he had decided to create a working group to negotiate with Democrats over the weekend. Vice President Pence, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen NielsenKirstjen Michele Nielsen'Anonymous' whistleblower Miles Taylor changing locations, employing private security after death threats Biden picks first Latino to lead Homeland Security Judge says acting DHS secretary appointment unlawful, invalidates DACA suspension MORE and senior advisor Jared KushnerJared Corey KushnerTiger King's attorney believes they're close to getting pardon from Trump Trump has discussed possible pardons for three eldest children, Kushner: report Trump, Kushner, White House sued by watchdog to prevent illegal deletion of official emails, WhatsApp messages MORE are to represent the White House.

Trump noted cheerfully that he had told Pelosi that she could send “five times” as many people to represent the Democratic side if she wished.

A White House statement later clarified that a follow-up meeting involving staff members would take place at 11 a.m. Saturday in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building adjacent to the White House.

However, a Democratic official familiar with Friday's meeting downplayed any suggestion of an imminent break in the logjam.

The official said that Pelosi and Schumer had asked Trump to commit to reopening the government by Tuesday, and he had refused to do so. 

"To be clear, the phrase 'working group' was not discussed in the meeting," the Democratic official added. "We expect staff discussions will continue as they have been."

Trump was flanked when giving his Rose Garden remarks by Pence, Nielsen, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin Owen McCarthyMcConnell: COVID-19 relief will be added to omnibus spending package Democrats were united on top issues this Congress — but will it hold? Top Republicans praise Trump's Flynn pardon MORE (R-Calif.) and House Minority Whip Steve ScaliseStephen (Steve) Joseph ScaliseTop Republicans praise Trump's Flynn pardon Richmond says GOP 'reluctant to stand up and tell the emperor he wears no clothes' New RSC chairman sees 'Trumpism' as future MORE (R-La.). Each spoke briefly and for the most part otherwise looked on impassively.

As the news conference neared the one-hour mark, McCarthy jokingly implied he might leave because he was getting cold. Trump suggested McCarthy could have his coat, an offer that the minority leader did not take up.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellPressure builds for coronavirus relief with no clear path to deal Top GOP senator warns government funding deal unlikely this week Criminal justice groups offer support for Durbin amid fight for Judiciary spot MORE (R-Ky.) — a more influential figure than his House colleagues on the central question of how the government might be fully reopened — had attended the meeting in the White House Situation Room but left before the news conference.

A McConnell spokesman later told reporters that his boss would have stayed around had he known the news conference was going to take place. As is often the case with the wily McConnell, there was some skepticism as to whether that explanation ought to be taken at face value.

Barring an unexpected breakthrough, the congressional calendar virtually guarantees that the shutdown will continue until at least Tuesday, which would extend its duration to 18 days, the second-longest pause of modern times.

Around 800,000 federal workers have been affected. The ramifications will bite even harder if the shutdown continues until late next week, raising the specter of those workers missing paychecks that would otherwise have been due on Jan. 11.

Trump claims that the federal workforce is on his side in the battle for the border wall — an assessment for which he provides only generalized and anecdotal evidence. Labor union officials who represent federal workers have vehemently disagreed.

Asked by April Ryan of American Urban Radio Networks what kind of “safety net” he would provide for federal workers affected by the shutdown, Trump claimed that “the safety net is going to be having a strong border because we’re going to be safe.”

There are already signs that some of Trump’s party colleagues dissent from that position.

Sens. Cory GardnerCory GardnerMark Kelly to be sworn in as senator on Wednesday Hillicon Valley: Trump fires top federal cybersecurity official, GOP senators push back | Apple to pay 3 million to resolve fight over batteries | Los Angeles Police ban use of third-party facial recognition software Senate passes bill to secure internet-connected devices against cyber vulnerabilities MORE (Colo.) and Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsBipartisan, bicameral group unveils 8 billion coronavirus proposal The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Mastercard - GOP angst in Georgia; confirmation fight looms Biden budget pick sparks battle with GOP Senate MORE (Maine) have expressed misgivings about the impasse, with Gardner saying on Thursday that he wanted the government reopened whether or not Trump gets his border wall funded.

But the president seems unwilling to bend, fearing that a perceived surrender on the wall would finally erode the support of a base that has stuck with him through many travails so far.

When it appeared last month as if Trump was moving toward signing a spending measure that would not have included funding for the wall, he came under a hail of criticism from conservative media figures like Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter and Michelle Malkin.

He has remained insistent on some form of wall funding ever since — though he has exhibited some flexibility on the terminology. He reiterated on Friday that he wanted to "build this wall, or fence, or anything the Democrats need to call it. Because I'm not into names, I'm into production."

As ever with the mercurial president, however, his precise position was hard to discern. Elsewhere during his news conference, he expressed a desire for a see-through steel wall, the construction of which he suggested would accelerate the revitalization of the U.S. steel industry.

He also claimed that "some" of his predecessors as president had told him they wished they had built a border wall. He did not specify which of the four living ex-presidents allegedly made that remark.

Pelosi, for her part, said outside the West Wing, “We really cannot resolve this until we open up government, and we made that very clear to the president.”

But for all Friday’s theatrics, a resolution appears as far away as ever.

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