Here’s how it went down.
When Mitch McConnell, Senate Majority Leader, first learned that Trump was caving on the government shutdown and the fight over “wall funding,” he misunderstood and thought that one of Melania’s escape tunnels had collapsed. He soon learned the truth. Trump was backing down! This was mightily puzzling to McConnell who, despite leading one-half of the co-equal branch of government known as Congress, was in reality a vassal to his liege lord Trump and was being left out in the cold. What could possibly be going on?
McConnell ran to the White House to get instructions from the master negotiator himself, Donald J. Trump. Trump was, however, confused by his fight with the Democrats over funding for his promised “border wall” (or, as he now says, “whatever you want to call it”). Trump had repeatedly rejected border security funding proposals that did not include the “wall,” preferring to shut down the U.S. government and thereby show how tough a negotiator he is. Trump’s negotiating principle was: “give me what I want or I will hurt you … or someone else you care about.” You know, like a mob boss. Trump apparently believed that it would be effective to simply continue demanding the one thing the Democrats, in solid control of the House of Representatives, weren’t prepared to give, complaining all the while that the Democrats wouldn’t negotiate. McConnell was at a loss how to help his lord and master out of this jam.
Many theories exist about how to negotiate effectively. Dozens, perhaps hundreds, of books have been devoted to the subject. The one tactic that virtually all negotiation authorities seem to agree on is that taking an extreme position at the outset and refusing to budge in order to get the other side to yield by simply repeating the position is the least effective approach to making a deal. Credible books on the subject devote considerable space to explaining how to deal with the “my way or the highway” negotiators because, despite their dismal record of results, there still are many “negotiators” who try the tactic.
Trump is a great example of this. By dint of his past position atop a real estate empire financed with other people’s money, he is accustomed to demanding and getting others to yield, lest he walk away or file a lawsuit (a favorite tactic). Surrounded by people eager to please, it appears no one told him that trying to negotiate by taking hostages and threatening to hurt them and continue hurting them is unlikely to lead to a favorable outcome. Even if someone told him, it’s unlikely he would have listened. Trump has made it clear many times that he already knows everything he needs to know about everything.
So, Trump shut down the government, loudly proclaiming that the shutdown was “on him” and no one else. Somehow, he thought that forcing hundreds of thousands of federal workers to either work for no pay (we’ll get back to you sometime later with your money) or stop working altogether without pay was going to force the Democrats led by the newly ensconced Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi to yield and give him the wall money he wanted. Maybe he thought, “she’s a woman and cares about people, so she’ll crack. I don’t care about anyone but myself so I can outlast her.” Maybe he just thought she was a weak person, since he thinks most people, especially women, are weak compared to him. Maybe he just had too many hamberders and couldn’t think straight. We’ll never really know.
What we do know is that the hostages in Trump’s power play tended to blame him and the Republicans for their inability to do their jobs and pay their bills. Members of Trump’s cabinet, in their usual fashion, tried to prove their loyalty and come to his aid, by pointing out that federal workers without incomes could simply borrow from a bank or credit union. Another characterized the work of federal workers forced to labor without pay until an unknown future time as “volunteering.” The wife of one of Trump’s wealthy sons pointed out that while, yes, there was a “bit of pain” involved in being without an income, it was for a greater cause and thus everyone should be happy to sacrifice. And on and on and on. They gave new meaning to the phrase “tone deaf.” Future historians trying to explain this time will be stymied by the utter absurdity of the theater created by these buffoons, all appointed by or otherwise owned by Trump.
As the casualties piled up, and the airplanes began to stack up as air traffic control faltered due to inadequate staffing, Trump finally caved. He accepted a short term funding and reopening of the government with negotiations then to begin regarding border security. The same deal he would have had back in December and on multiple occasions since then.
In classic Trump fashion, of course, the cave in was accompanied by a meandering blathering incoherent speech about border security and, finally, a repeat of the same old threat: “give me what I demand or I will declare a national emergency, shut down the government again and build the wall with money I will steal from other parts of the federal budget.” Indeed, in a tweet following his Rose Garden speech, Trump flatly denied he had made a concession at all. He reframed his collapse as a decision to help the
“millions of people who were getting badly hurt by the Shutdown with the understanding that in 21 days, if no deal is done, it’s off to the races!”
The “understanding” Trump refers to is only an illusion within his own mind, not something that involves third parties.
To remove any lingering doubts about that, the putative White House Press Secretary, who now has nothing to do but repeat Trump’s messages, tweeted:
In 21 days President @realDonaldTrump is moving forward building the wall with or without the Democrats. The only outstanding question is whether the Democrats want something or nothing. [emphasis added]
That must make sense to Sanders but for the life of me I don’t know what the hell she is saying. Someone I know well replied to her on Twitter with
Really? Trump caved to give Democrats another chance of yield to his demands? That’s your story?
So, apparently, if we’re to believe Trump this time, it’s still “my way or the highway” and this whole three-week suspension of the shutdown is only to help out the Democrats. Or the federal workers. Or somebody.
On that note, the “negotiations” will resume. Now, no one knows whether the courts will sustain a declaration of national emergency in these circumstances. Trump’s record in court is pretty bad, but this is largely uncharted territory. The data on border crossings do not appear to remotely support the idea that there is a national emergency but it remains to be seen whether the courts will simply defer to the “president’s authority” on this.
Of course, one must also wonder why, if Trump has the power to arbitrarily declare a national emergency, he would also have to shut down the government again. One may also wonder why, if he is so determined to build his wall, he doesn’t just use the powers he claims to already have and proceed to steal the money from some other budget item. But logic has never defined this presidency, so maybe that’s just a silly question. Or, just maybe, his legal advisors have warned him that he is on thin ice in claiming absolute power to build the wall on his own order. Again, we’ll likely never know what thought process, if any, actually underlies these twisted mental gymnastics. One thing we can reasonably be sure of – it’s not to help out the Democrats and it’s not about protecting federal workers, about whom Donald Trump gives not one … damn.
The other point to be made here was, I think, very well made in a Facebook post attributed to Dan Rather by the site, Truth Matters. Summarized, the argument is that to bring the issue of border security and the “wall” forward properly, Trump should have arranged for legislation to be introduced, after which hearings would be held, expert testimony collected and, ultimately, votes taken on the elements of a proper modern border security regime. In legislative terms, this would be called “regular order.” But, no, Trump thinks he is a dictator who can simply demand what he wants and everyone will yield as they did when he was in private life running his real estate companies.
The resistance led by Pelosi shows that at least one half of the Congress, under Democratic leadership, understands its proper constitutional role as balance against the executive. Trump thinks he’s going to win because he needs to satisfy his political base and he is blind to the reality that even some of that group of slavishly devoted followers were hurt by and disapprove of the government shutdown Trump directed and that he continues to threaten.
So, the negotiations will resume with Trump’s threat on the table: “do it my way or I will simply go around you.” This is not a formula for success and there is no reason for Democrats in the House to yield to this type of threat from the president. It is not in fact the Democrats who don’t want to negotiate – it is Trump who still insists “you will do it may way or else.”
I am not prescient and will not try to predict how this is going to come out, but it’s hard to be optimistic when one party takes the position of a 5-year old who won’t eat dinner unless he’s guaranteed two desserts.
When last seen, Mitch McConnell was seen standing in the cold in front of the White House holding a note addressed to the president. It read “My liege, what, oh what, do you want me to do now?”
Note: some of the above is satire but it’s impossible to know which part. It could all be true.