Donald Trump spoke at a chaotic news conference at the White House Rose Garden on Friday (AFP)
President Donald Trump warned Friday that the partial government shutdown could go on for months or even years, delivering no real breakthrough with congressional leaders as his own administration scrambled to shore up support among Republicans for a gambit that has started to fracture.
In a rambling, hour-long news conference in the Rose Garden that followed a meeting with senior lawmakers, Trump asserted that he had the power to declare a national emergency to build the wall without Congress – a move that would almost certainly be challenged in the courts. At the same time, he insisted the government would stay shuttered while the wall impasse continues, claiming without offering evidence that previous presidents have told him they wished they had built a wall themselves.
Trump seemed to display little empathy for the 800,000 federal employees who have been furloughed or are working without being paid, saying that most workers support the shutdown and that the "safety net is going to be having a strong border because we're going to be safe." For workers who won't be able to pay their rent, Trump suggested that landlords would "work with" them and that he would encourage them to "be nice and easy" on their tenants.
"This is national security we're talking about. We're not talking about games," Trump said, flanked by Vice President Mike Pence, the top two House Republican leaders and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen. "This should've been done by all of the presidents that preceded me."
He also appeared to hold out the possibility that the shutdown would not end: "We'll see what happens. It may get solved, it may not get solved," the president said.
The chaotic news conference Friday – combined with the meeting with congressional leaders in the White House Situation Room that preceded it – underscored how few substantive developments have occurred since the shutdown began two weeks ago. Congress is adjourned until Tuesday, making Wednesday the earliest the government can reopen barring a major turnaround in the current standoff between the administration and congressional Democrats.
At that point, the partial closure will have lasted 18 days – making it the second-longest federal shutdown in recent history.
Real-life consequences of the shutdown are already beginning to seep in. In one example Friday, union leaders said hundreds of Transportation Safety Administration workers at major airports nationwide are off the job because they can't afford to get to work, although a TSA spokesman said the absences aren't enough to affect airport security operations. Millions of Americans also face delayed tax refunds and cuts to food stamps if the standoff drags on into February.
Some congressional Republicans have started to fret about the impact of the impasse, which hinges on Trump's insistence on more than $5 billion in federal money toward a border wall that he repeatedly said would be funded by Mexico. No such funding has materialized.
Pence called about a half-dozen House Republicans late Thursday to urge them to vote against measures that would reopen the government without new wall funding. White House officials were worried that a wave of GOP defections could give the Democratic effort bipartisan backing.
Two Republican officials confirmed the last-minute calls, speaking on the condition of anonymity to divulge the private communications.
Ultimately, just five House GOP lawmakers voted with Democrats on a spending bill that would operate the Department of Homeland Security until Feb. 8, and seven Republicans supported separate legislation that would reopen the rest of the federal government through Sept. 30. GOP officials feared the defections could have been much higher had the administration not gotten directly involved.
Pence's outreach centered on moderate members and those who hail from the Northeast, making a pitch that centered on two main points: The country needs funding for a wall, and Congress should not punt to February, when the stopgap DHS funding would have expired under the Democratic strategy.
The vice president also pointed to language in the funding bill passed late Thursday that would reverse the so-called Mexico City policy, which denies U.S. assistance to foreign groups that offer or promote abortions.
Even so, some influential Republicans have struggled to stay aligned behind Trump in the face of the shutdown.
Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., who is up for re-election November 2020 in a state that Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton won in 2016, has called on Congress to pass spending bills to reopen the government even if they don't contain Trump's desired level of border wall money. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, a moderate also on the ballot next year in a blue state, has also argued that legislation to fund other parts of the government shouldn't be held hostage to disputes over the wall.
"Federal workers don't deserve this," Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said Friday in Manhattan, Kansas, during a news conference in which he announced his retirement from the Senate.
Trump said he had formed a Pence-led working group that would be meeting with Hill staff over the weekend to come up with a solution to the impasse. That session will occur 11 a.m. at the White House, according to a congressional official. But one Democratic official familiar with Friday's congressional leadership meeting said the phrase "working group" was not mentioned during it, and that staff discussions were expected to continue as before.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said the meeting with Trump had been contentious, although Trump later called it productive. The Democrats said they pleaded with him to set aside the wall dispute and reopen the government, but that he refused.
"He resisted," Schumer said. "In fact, he said he'd keep the government closed for a very long period of time, months or even years."
The president confirmed those remarks during his Rose Garden appearance, and said he was considering declaring a national emergency to build the wall.
Elizabeth Goitein, the co-director of the Liberty and National Security program at the Brennan Center, said Trump could theoretically use the National Emergencies Act of 1976 to declare a national emergency. Doing so could activate a "handful" of legal authorities – for example, one that would allow the Pentagon to reprogram funds from Army civil works projects to any Army national defense project – that might allow Trump to divert funding for wall construction, Goitein said.
"I think it could be a clear abuse of authorities to invoke them here in the absence of any actual emergency," Goitein said. "The problem is that our legal system for emergency powers really invites that kind of abuse because it puts no limits on a president's ability to declare an emergency."
In their meeting, Schumer repeatedly urged Trump to open up the government, telling him it's difficult to negotiate when he was holding government hostage, according to another official familiar with the exchange.
Trump responded: "I'm not going to say it's for leverage, but I'm not going to get a deal unless I do this," the official said. The president often used profanity during the meeting, apologizing to Pelosi at one point for cursing so much, according to the official.
Even as Pelosi has chastised him in public, Trump has made a deliberate effort not to attack her, two advisers said.
Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has largely stayed on the sidelines, leaving it to Pelosi and Schumer to resolve the wall dispute with Trump.
McConnell and his top deputy, Senate Majority Whip John Thune, R-S.D., were not present when Trump and other Republican lawmakers appeared outside the White House following Friday's meeting. Aides to McConnell insisted they were not aware of the news conference.
McConnell was frustrated about Trump reversing himself on a short-term funding bill last month to keep the government open – legislation that Republicans thought the president would sign. The top Senate Republican has also complained to allies about how unreliable the president was as a negotiating partner and how the president listened to what McConnell viewed as unproductive voices, according to two people familiar with the discussions.
Schumer has sought to involve McConnell more, telling White House senior adviser Jared Kushner in a recent meeting that McConnell needed to be a more active participant. But McConnell has told advisers and other senators that he does not feel pressure to get more involved and that his members are not itching for the shutdown to end, the people said.
"He's the leader of the Senate – part of this shutdown," Schumer said in a brief interview Thursday. "When he just tosses the ball over to Trump, he's somewhat complicit in the shutdown because Trump is organizing it, Trump is the impetus for it and McConnell is going along."
Josh Holmes, a McConnell adviser, said he saw his main role as keeping the caucus together.
"He knows exactly where the leverage points are on negotiations like this. He's certainly not going to provide Democrats with an opportunity to exploit Republican divisions," Holmes said. "So he's going to provide a unified front here to get the president the best deal he can."
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The Washington Post's Paul Kane, Anne Gearan, Lisa Rein, Ashley Halsey III, and Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.
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