How to Interpret Trump's Surprise Government Shutdown Threat

Jul 30 2018

Surprise! President Donald Trump is once again threatening to shut down the government over his desire for stricter immigration policies and funding for a border wall with Mexico.

“I would be willing to ‘shut down’ government if the Democrats do not give us the votes for Border Security, which includes the Wall!” Trump tweeted Sunday morning. “Must get rid of Lottery, Catch & Release etc. and finally go to system of Immigration based on MERIT! We need great people coming into our Country!”

The president reiterated the threat at a news conference Monday. "I always leave room for negotiations, he said, before adding that he “would certainly be willing” to shut down the government to get immigration reform done. Trump added that $25 billion in funding for the wall is not a “red line” for him.

Is the president’s latest threat just political posturing? Or could Trump follow through and let a partial shutdown take place just five weeks before Election Day?

Here’s a breakdown of the latest shutdown showdown:

TV may have driven Trump to tweet. Both Fox News and CNN featured segments about the possible shutdown on Sunday morning, shortly before Trump’s tweet. "I think the president would be wise to reiterate that he would shut it down if they won't give a border wall," co-host Pete Hegseth said during a segment on "Fox and Friends" Sunday.

This could just be more Trump bluster. "Just letting off some steam," one congressional aide told CNN. "At our expense, per usual." The president likely doesn’t mind one bit if his Twitter grenades help take some attention away from other news stories.

Trump’s threats have little credibility at this point. The Washington Post’s Philip Rucker, Robert Costa and Damian Paletta provide this reminder: “Both last year and this year, Trump said he would shut down the government if Democrats didn’t agree to fund construction of the wall. Both times, Democrats refused, and both times, Trump agreed to sign spending bills that did not include funds for a new wall along the southern border.”

Trump relishes a fight. “A shutdown fight is coming. Period,” CNN’s Phil Mattingly reports. “The President and his top advisers want it -- and view it to be politically beneficial when it comes to immigration and the wall, according to multiple aides involved in spending discussions.” Republicans running for office may disagree, but Trump is making his priorities clear.

He loves playing to his base. Trump is systematically picking fights he thinks are popular with his base, writes Amber Phillips of The Washington Post. His other targets this weekend included the media and attacking the Mueller probe as a partisan witch hunt.

And he thinks this issue will help in November. “The midterms are going to come down to turnout,” Andy Surabian, a Republican strategist and former White House official told The Wall Street Journal. “It’s going to be which base is more energized to turn out and vote. And there’s not an issue that touches the president’s base more strongly than immigration. Talking about immigration will help motivate Republicans to turn out in November.”

Or maybe this is just about keeping the Senate under GOP control. “What I think President Trump is probably doing here is trying to run up wins in the Senate as much as he can, being willing to sacrifice the House,” radio host Ross Kaminsky said on Fox News. “For Republicans to pick up seats in the Senate, they have to win in places that Donald Trump won – win seats that are currently held by Democrats.” Trump may be trying to build GOP momentum and turnout in key races like those in Indiana, Michigan and Missouri.

But he’s giving congressional Republicans headaches. Trump’s tweet came days after Republican leaders reportedly thought they had reached an agreement with Trump to delay a fight over the border wall. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Friday that a shutdown is “not going to happen” and other Republicans are still saying it won’t. But with the midterm elections now less than 100 days away, others in the GOP are questioning the president’s approach. “We’re going to have a challenging midterm anyway, and I don’t see how putting the attention on shutting down the government when you control the government is going to help you,” Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK) told The New York Times.

This may be his last chance to get money for the wall. If Democrats win back control of the House in November, the odds of securing major funding for wall construction drop precipitously. Trump knows that time to deliver on one of his biggest campaign promises could be running out.

So he’s looking to maximize his leverage, even if it’s a risky move. “It's a riverboat gamble for Trump to initiate a shutdown over his border wall,” writes Rick Moran at PJ Media. “While border security scores high in polls, the wall is not as popular. A likely outcome is a short-term shutdown followed by a very short continuing resolution -- perhaps lasting less than a month. Once Trump has established he means business, the real negotiations begin.”

See you in December? Trump’s threat may be more about December than October. “Trump didn’t specify whether he wants to shut down the government by vetoing spending legislation when the fiscal year concludes at the end of September, or as several funding bills are considered later in the year,” Bloomberg’s Erik Wasson and Anna Edgerton write. “A House Republican aide said there’s no chance of a September shutdown although one in December is possible if Trump follows through with his threat.”

But Trump’s not going to get what he wants on immigration. “Both chambers of Congress have already voted on his proposals this year, and shot them down decisively,” Bloomberg’s Jonathan Bernstein writes. “He can demand an unpopular sweeping overhaul of immigration law that caters to his relatively narrow group of hard-line nativists all he wants, but Congress simply isn’t going to give it to him.”

Congressional Republicans could prevent an October shutdown. More from Bloomberg’s Bernstein: “[F]or a shutdown to happen, Trump would have to veto a clean spending bill that leaders of both parties supported — and then enough Republicans would have to vote to sustain that veto. Could that happen? Sure. It’s just hard to see any practical reason for it. … So what it would really take is for Trump to decide to do it because he thinks it would be really cool … and then to have dozens of House Republicans indulge him even at a cost to their own party. Which means, even though it would make no sense at all, that a shutdown really could happen after all.”

There’s some irony here. The appropriations process for 2019 has been running somewhat more smoothly than it has in recent years — and that’s partly because of Trump’s veto threat before signing the last big spending bill in March, CNN’s Mattingly says: “His threats as he signed that $1.3 trillion omnibus were taken dead seriously -- by both parties. … In other words: The President is responsible for the process working for the first time in years. That's a big deal. Now the President is threatening to short-circuit that process.”

TOP READS FROM THE FISCAL TIMES