The Memo: Trump sows fresh confusion on shutdown

President TrumpDonald John TrumpStates slashed 4,400 environmental agency jobs in past decade: study Biden hammers Trump over video of world leaders mocking him Iran building hidden arsenal of short-range ballistic missiles in Iraq: report 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 PelosiTrump's legal team huddles with Senate Republicans On The Money: Falling impeachment support raises pressure for Dems on trade | Trump escalates fight over tech tax | Biden eyes minimum tax for corporations | Fed's top regulator under pressure over Dodd-Frank rules Overnight Health Care — Presented by Johnson & Johnson — Virginia moves to suspend Medicaid work rules | Powerful House panel sets 'Medicare for All' hearing | Hospitals sue over Trump price rule | FDA official grilled on vaping policy MORE (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerOvernight Health Care — Presented by Johnson & Johnson — Democrats call on Supreme Court to block Louisiana abortion law | Michigan governor seeks to pause Medicaid work requirements | New front in fight over Medicaid block grants House, Senate Democrats call on Supreme Court to block Louisiana abortion law Why a second Trump term and a Democratic Congress could be a nightmare scenario for the GOP 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 NielsenTrump puts Kushner in charge of overseeing border wall construction: report Hillicon Valley: Google to limit political ad targeting | Senators scrutinize self-driving car safety | Trump to 'look at' Apple tariff exemption | Progressive lawmakers call for surveillance reforms | House panel advances telecom bills Minority lawmakers call out Google for hiring former Trump DHS official MORE and senior advisor Jared KushnerJared Corey KushnerDemocrat calls for investigation of possible 'inappropriate influence' by Trump in border wall contract Judge temporarily halts construction of a private border wall in Texas Mueller witness linked to Trump charged in scheme to illegally funnel money to Clinton campaign 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 McCarthyWhite House calls Democratic witness's mentioning of president's youngest son 'classless' Republicans disavow GOP candidate who said 'we should hang' Omar Nunes accuses Democrats of promoting 'conspiracy theories' MORE (R-Calif.) and House Minority Whip Steve ScaliseStephen (Steve) Joseph ScaliseRepublicans disavow GOP candidate who said 'we should hang' Omar Nunes accuses Democrats of promoting 'conspiracy theories' Pressure grows on House GOP leaders to hold line ahead of impeachment trial 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 McConnellTrump's legal team huddles with Senate Republicans Schumer briefs Democrats on impeachment trial 'mechanics' Trump legal team gears up for Senate impeachment trial in meeting with GOP senators 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 Scott GardnerHillicon Valley: House passes anti-robocall bill | Senators inch forward on privacy legislation | Trump escalates fight over tech tax | Illinois families sue TikTok | Senators get classified briefing on ransomware Senators urge FERC to protect critical infrastructure from Huawei threats Senators sound alarm on dangers of ransomware attacks after briefing MORE (Colo.) and Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsSenate confirms Trump pick labeled 'not qualified' by American Bar Association Republicans raise concerns over Trump pardoning service members Collins opposes Trump's district court pick 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.