President Donald Trump will likely approve a congressional spending deal struck Tuesday, but first he is engaging in what allies called foot-dragging theatrics aimed at his disgruntled conservative supporters.
Even as Trump said he was “not happy” and “adding things” to the agreement in Congress, several people close to the White House said they believe he is simply delaying his inevitable support for a deal that some leading conservatives are calling unacceptable.
Trump gave confusing comments to reporters Tuesday about the congressional deal to avert another partial government shutdown caused by Trump’s demand for $5.7 billion to fund a southern border wall. The agreement includes just $1.4 billion for border security, less than a quarter of what Trump has demanded.
His remarks — which neither endorsed nor fully rejected the spending deal — may have reflected the lack of good options Trump enjoys to resolve a border wall fight that has consumed the past two months of his presidency.
His ambivalence may have been fueled by the scathing reactions of key conservatives, who panned the agreement even before its details were released. Fox News host Sean Hannity called it a “garbage compromise.” Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), chairman of the conservative Freedom Caucus, said he was “disappointed.” And Tea Party Patriots Action Honorary Chairman Jenny Beth Martin said in a statement that the “so-called ‘deal’ is worse than a joke.”
Despite those assessments, key Republicans in Congress determined to avoid another shutdown worked furiously to bring the president on board. Following a Tuesday evening meeting at the White House with one of them, Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), Trump sounded more positive than he had earlier in the day.
“Looking over all aspects of the agreement knowing that this will be hooked up with lots of money from other sources,” Trump tweeted, claiming that the final total would be “almost $23 BILLION for Border Security.”
It was unclear what other sources Trump was referring to, but White House officials have been studying ways he might unilaterally redirect billions of unspent federal dollars towards wall construction.
In interviews, Trump allies and several GOP senators who are urging the president to accept the deal, were hopeful that Trump would accept Tuesday’s spending deal rather than force another government shutdown like the one that ended earlier this month after 35 days and left the public mostly blaming Trump.
“He doesn’t want a shutdown, I don’t believe,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), one of the congressional negotiators. “I believe he’ll sign it and make some subsequent moves.”
Some Republicans suspect that Trump, a former reality show star keenly aware of how political dramas unfold on TV, has already decided to surrender his fight with Congress — but that he is still working to convince supporters that he got the best of his House Democratic opponents.
“He’s got to convince his supporters that he got a good deal,” Republican strategist John Feehery said. “It’s all messaging. He’s got to sell this thing.”
Even as it has become clear that Congress would not yield to him, Trump has continued to make grandiose claims about erecting the wall that was his signature campaign promise in 2016. Headlining a raucous “Make America Great Again” rally in El Paso, Texas, on Monday, Trump reiterated his case for building a wall as the crowd broke into a familiar chant of “Build that wall!”
Trump flew home from Texas early Tuesday morning with the state’s two Republican senators, Sen. Ted Cruz and John Cornyn. During the flight, Cornyn said in an interview, Trump voiced “his skepticism at the deal.”
“My hope is he recognizes this as an incremental win,” Cornyn said. “We’ll hold our breath.”
People close to the president warned that he could still change his mind if conservative criticism boils over. But some Republicans argued that there is no way Trump will be able to satisfy the voices on the right urging him to reject the spending compromise.
And many hope that he can appease restive conservatives by tapping federal dollars through his executive power — even though such an action, which could entail the declaration of a national emergency to activate certain legal powers, or the invocation of other, more obscure presidential authorities, would be nearly certain to draw legal challenges and trigger political blowback.
The congressional deal announced Tuesday includes $1.375 billion for physical barriers — which resembles the “steel slats” that Trump has talked about. Democrats dropped earlier demands to cap the number the number of people who can be detained by Immigration and Custom Enforcement, a position that derailed talks over the weekend.
Republican leaders sounded eager to bring an end to the months-long shutdown battle Trump had visited upon them once and for all. Seeming to offer Trump a face-saving exit strategy, they praised the agreement — but invited Trump to take further action on his own.
“The president has a few more tools in his toolbox,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said in a Tuesday morning appearance on CNBC in which he touted the compromise deal as a GOP victory.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters Tuesday that he had urged the president to sign the deal if its details match initial previews. McConnell also encouraged Trump to take further action on his own. “I think he ought to feel free to use whatever tools he can legally use to enhance his effort to secure the border,” McConnell told reporters.
In his Tuesday remarks, Trump hinted that he would do just that.
“I’m thrilled because we’re supplementing things and moving things around and we’re doing things that are fantastic, taking from far less important areas and the bottom line is we’re building a lot of wall,” he said.
Some top Republicans argued Tuesday that Democrats were the real losers, having given up on their efforts to restrict interior enforcement by ICE, and agreeing to 55 additional miles of wall. They hoped that Trump would take Congress’s deal, even if he complains about it publicly, and call it a “down payment on border security” — as Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) put it Tuesday — before moving unilaterally to pull more wall funding from the federal budget if necessary.
But there was no denying that Trump is far from thrilled with a congressional agreement that leaves him far short of his original demand — and no predicting for sure what the impulsive president might do.
“He was not exuberant about the numbers, although he knew they’d come up from when [House Speaker Nancy Pelosi] said ‘nothing.” for the wall,” Shelby said. “He wants us to settle this, get the government all back, get these bills passed.”
“Now, would he want more?” Shelby added. “Yes. You know him.”