In announcing a deal to end the partial government shutdown and reopen the federal government, President Donald Trump’s Rose Garden speech on Friday is significant not so much for what he said, but in how he avoided admitting the obvious: He caved.
Make no mistake about it, Trump surrendered to congressional Democrats’ demand that he reopen the government before any parties enter into negotiations over legislation that might fund the construction of a wall along the southern border of the country. In effect, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer won this round, besting Trump in a test of political will that began when the president vowed to “own” the shutdown, and ended mere hours after he similarly vowed “No Cave!”
Trump tweeted yesterday "No cave!" and yet, 24 hours later, he is reopening the government with no money for a border wall, which Dems had asked for 4 weeks ago.
— Abby D. Phillip (@abbydphillip) January 25, 2019
Between the first vow and the last, some 800,000 federal employees were forced from their jobs during a 35-day shutdown that included two missed paychecks.
Emerging nearly 45 minutes late for his scheduled 1:30 p.m. announcement, Trump opened his remarks saying, “I am very proud to announce today that we have reached a deal to end the shutdown and reopen the federal government.”
He announced that he had agreed with congressional leaders to a three-week short-term spending bill that would send workers back to their jobs. However, he never made mention of his failure to secure funding for his wall, the ostensible reasonhe compelled the shutdown in the first place. Of course, this is in keeping with Trump’s long history of refusing to acknowledge defeat, even when it’s glaringly obvious for all, save his most sycophantic followers, to see.
If you listen closely to what the president said — and didn’t say — it’s abundantly clear that his Rose Garden speech is both a prime example of his stubborn personality, as well as a window into his authoritarian style of leadership. When Trump doesn’t get his way, or loses out in his efforts at dealmaking, he seeks to save face by either renegotiating his own terms or ignoring that he ever made any demands in the first place.
In his speech today, Trump said the government would be open through February 15, as Congress debates a funding formula for border security. This is what Democrats — led by Pelosi — had been demanding since the shutdown began. Instead of clearly articulating that key point, Trump spent more than a half-hour making yet another national case for why his crude, backwards-looking wall was necessary in the 21st century.
“The walls we are building are not medieval walls,” Trump said. “They are smart walls designed to meet the needs of front-line border agents and are operationally effective.”
What’s more, Trump’s sudden embrace of “smart walls” — which would substitute concrete-and-concertina wire for satellite scanners and drones to secure the border — is an idea lifted straight from Democratic proposals, like the one Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Mississippi) and House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-South Carolina) floated days ago as an alternative to Trump’s ill-conceived $5.7 billion physical barrier across the nation’s southern border.
Beyond that, Trump offered in a rambling speech that was a redux of his greatest-hit talking points on the wall. Knowing he had a rapt audience waiting to hear him reopen the government, Trump seized the moment to launch into graphic descriptions of horrific crimes, floods of illegal drugs, and potential international calamities that could befall the United States, if he didn’t get his way:
The requests we have put before. Congress are vital to ending the humanitarian and security crisis on our southern border. Absolutely vital. Will not work without it. This crisis threatens the safety of our country and thousands of American lives. Criminal cartels, narcoterrorists, transnational gangs like MS-13 and human traffickers are brazenly violating U.S. laws and terrorizing innocent citizens…Women are tied up. They are bound. Duct tape put around their faces and round their mouths and in many cases, they can’t even breathe and put in the backs of cars, vans or trucks. They don’t go through your port of entry. They make a right turn going very quickly. They go into the desert area or whatever areas you can’t look at.
Trump’s language isn’t the contrition by a defeated politician. Rather, it’s a fear-mongering appeal to his never-say-die constituents. Lacking the broad public support for his ridiculous policies, Trump leans heavily upon a manipulative style akin to a mad despot, conjuring up threats that don’t exist, villains posing fictional dangers, and graphic scenarios to frighten citizens.
Then, in true despotic fashion, he attempted to portray his leadership by issuing a renewed threat to declare a national emergency and build the wall on his own authority, if the matter wasn’t settled in his favor in three weeks’ time.
“As everyone knows, I have a very powerful alternative but I didn’t want to use it at this time,” he said, referring the administration’s draft of plans to declare a national emergency and pull other funding for his wall. Almost everyone discounts that as a serious threat, especially since he didn’t follow through before the shutdown, any such declaration would likely get mired in the courts, and GOP leaders generally take a dim view of the proposal as well.
It is more likely that Trump is bluffing, because during this non-concession speech, he hinted at further shifts in his position. For example, he claimed that he never meant to build the wall that he repeatedly described during his 2016 run for the White House.
“We do not need 2,000 miles of concrete wall from sea to shining sea, we never did, we never proposed that, we never wanted that, because we have barriers at the border where our natural structures are as good as anything we can build,” Trump said, completely contradicting the demands he routinely made before encountering opposition in the form of a Democrat-controled House of Representatives.
But Trump’s capitulation was inevitable. Confronted by the unified opposition of House Democrats and buffeted by sinking polling numbers that showed the public blamed the White House and Republicans for the shutdown, it was only a matter of time before reality forced Trump to back down.
And just as inevitably, it was certain that Trump would attempt, best as he can, to portray his ultimate defeat as some sort of ignoble victory. But no matter how he tried to spin the outcome or obscure it with scary, fear-mongering language, the truth was self-evident: Trump caved.