President Donald Trump clashed sharply with Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer in a remarkable Oval Office meeting before reporters Tuesday, with the president threatening to shut down the government and the Democrats warning him they will not bend.
In a pitched partisan argument televised for all to see, the GOP president and the House and Senate Democratic leaders traded barbs over Trump’s border wall during what was supposed to be a private negotiating session to keep a large swath of the government from shuttering after Dec. 21.
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And in perhaps his most definitive statement yet, Trump said he would be “proud” to preside over a partial shutdown if that’s what it takes to get his campaign promise fulfilled.
Democrats urged the president against such a stance, even as they seized on the chance to blame Trump for any potential shutdown.
“We shouldn’t shut down the government over a dispute,” said Schumer, the Senate Democratic leader.
“The last time, Chuck, you shut it down,” shot back Trump, referring to Democrats’ brief shut down over immigration earlier this year. “If we don’t get what we want … I am proud to shut down the government for border security, Chuck.”
The public battle revealed the yawning gap between the president and congressional Democrats, foreshadowing the next 10 days of dramatic back-and-forth over whether roughly a quarter of the government will lapse due to the president’s $5 billion border wall request. It seems both parties have little incentive to give in: the Democratic grassroots doesn’t want a compromise with Trump, and the president sees no reason to give up now that the midterms are over.
Republicans are already grappling with the fallout. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said bluntly: “I hope that’s not where we end up.”
“I understand it was a rather spirited meeting. But I feel like I see a smooth ending here. I haven’t given up hope,” McConnell said after a GOP lunch with Vice President Mike Pence.
After the meeting, Schumer said that Trump had a “temper tantrum” and Pelosi said when Democrats take over in January, they will pass a bill that keeps border security funded at current levels.
“The President showed what he really thinks, he wants to shut down the government,” Schumer told reporters at the Capitol. “It’ll be a Trump shutdown and then Jan. 3, if it happens, the House will open it up again.”
Later, Schumer also backed away from a bipartisan Senate bill providing $1.6 billion in border fencing. Instead he’s endorsing only the amount of funding that the president got last year: $1.3 billion.
Inside the White House meeting, the Democrats appeared united in their vow not to accede to Trump’s demands, but the president seemed to revel in battling both of them for the cameras.
Trump repeatedly said that the outgoing House GOP majority will give him his border wall funding and that the problem is Schumer’s Senate, bragging that Republicans held the upper chamber even as Schumer ridiculed him for touting wins in deep red states.
Then Trump turned his fire on Pelosi, questioning her negotiating position as she battles for the speakership. Liberals say the two Democratic leaders should deny Trump anything for his wall, and Pelosi is taking on a fight while she’s still trying to accrue secure 218 votes to be elected speaker.
“If we don’t have border security, we’ll shut down the government,” Trump said, taunting Pelosi. “Nancy’s in a situation where it’s not easy to talk right now”
The California Democrat responded icily: “Please don’t characterize the strength that I bring to this meeting.”
As Vice President Mike Pence watched on, Democrats said that the public firefight was unproductive.
“Let’s debate in private,” Schumer offered.
“Let us have a conversation where we don’t have to contradict in public,” Pelosi pleaded.
But Trump seemed to play up his persistence for the press.
“I will take the mantle,” Trump said of blame for a shut down. “I will be the one to shut it down.”
Pelosi told her caucus earlier Tuesday that she and Schumer are pitching two funding options to Trump — neither of which would deliver a funding boost for the border wall, according to multiple people in Democratic Caucus meeting.
Both of their options would punt the border wall fight until fall 2019, long after House Democrats retake the majority, Pelosi told her caucus just ahead of the White House meeting.
Democrats planned to pitch Trump on a yearlong stopgap bill for the Department of Homeland Security, which would reup a current budget of $1.3 billion for border fencing, while approving the other six unfinished bills. That idea has already been rejected by GOP leaders on Capitol Hill.
They also intended to present a new backup option: Approve a massive yearlong stopgap bill, and punt all funding fights until fall 2019 to maximize Democratic leaders’ leverage in the House. But GOP leaders said they didn’t think Trump would sign something that barely speaks to his border wall request.
“I don’t expect the president would go along with that [if] he’s not getting the border funding he wants,” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas).
Other Republicans said Trump’s remarks made their job harder but many blamed Democrats for being intractable.
“I don’t think it’s something to be proud of, I think it’s something to be resolved, “Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). “It’s absurd to deny this president additional wall money.”
Ahead of the meeting, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell urged Pelosi and Schumer to cut a deal with Trump on funding the border wall, raising the prospects of another government shutdown this year over immigration. Senate Democrats refused to fund the government for a couple days in January in an effort to force a debate on immigration reform.
McConnell said he would watch “eagerly” to see if Democrats could accept a $5 billion infusion of money for border security.
“There is no reason for my Democratic friends to end this year the way they began it. It would be truly bizarre for them to decide they’d prefer a partial government shutdown to reasonable funding for national security. It would signal that their party is more committed to political spite for the president than to the public interest,” McConnell said.
While Congress has provided funding for border security, the massive spending bill Trump signed this spring was mostly restricted to fencing and border protection as a whole rather than a Trump-style wall or even the construction of wall prototypes.
He appeared to mix up the two again Tuesday when he claimed that Democrats voted in 2006 for a “wall,” which seems to refer to 2006 legislation to construct fencing along the southern border, even though it garnered little Democratic support in the House.
“If the Democrats do not give us the votes to secure our Country, the Military will build the remaining sections of the Wall,” Trump wrote. “They know how important it is!”
Marianne Levine contributed to this story.