Government Shutdown: Trump Suggests It Could Last ‘Months or Even Years’
WASHINGTON — President Trump threatened on Friday to keep the federal government partially closed for “months or even years” if he does not get money to build a wall along the southern border, but he also expressed optimism he could reach agreement with congressional Democrats within days.
Mr. Trump and Democratic leaders emerged from a two-hour meeting without a deal to reopen government agencies that have already been shuttered for 14 days and offered sharply contrasting views of where they stood. Democrats called the meeting “contentious” while the president and Republican allies called it “productive.”
The president said he invited Democrats to send negotiators to meet over the weekend with three of his top advisers to negotiate a deal to strengthen security along the border. Democrats told reporters after the meeting that they implored the president to first reopen the government so they could negotiate without holding federal operations and employees hostage.
“We told the president we needed the government open,” Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, told reporters outside the White House. “He resisted. In fact, he said he’d keep the government closed for a very long period of time, months or even years.”
Appearing in the Rose Garden later, Mr. Trump confirmed that he said that. “I did. I did. Absolutely I said that,” he said. “I don’t think it will, but I am prepared.”
He added: “I hope it doesn’t go on even a few more days. It could be opened really quickly.”
Mr. Trump had no hostile words for the opposition. “I found the Democrats really want to do something,” he said. He designated Vice President Mike Pence, Kirstjen Nielsen, the Homeland Security secretary, and Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser to meet with congressional representatives this weekend.
At the same time, in response to a question from a reporter, the president held out the possibility that he could declare a national emergency and assume the unilateral power to build a wall without congressional approval.
“I may do it,” he said, flanked by Mr. Pence, Ms. Nielsen and congressional Republican leaders. “We could call a national emergency and build it very quickly. That’s another way to do it. But if we can do it through a negotiated process, that’s better.”
Mr. Trump said there was discussion during the meeting of an idea floated by conservative commentators to end the impasse: marrying wall funding and protecting from deportation young immigrants who were previously covered by the Deferred Action For Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, which Mr. Trump has moved to rescind.
As he left for the White House, Representative Kevin McCarthy, the Republican leader, sounded open to the idea. “We can find common ground,” Mr. McCarthy told reporters. “DACA is a problem, border security is a problem and anything that can make sure that we can get everything together and move forward, I’m willing to discuss.”
On Friday, the president sent a letter to Congress that was an unsubtle rebuff to Democratic leaders with whom he had previously met on Wednesday. According to a person in that earlier meeting, Ms. Pelosi cut off Ms. Nielsen as she reeled off statistics about the border. In his letter, Mr. Trump said that “some of those present did not want to hear the presentation at the time, and so I have instead decided to make the presentation available to all Members of Congress.”
The shutdown, which enters its third week on Saturday, has left about 800,000 workers without pay, limited the functions of federal agencies and slowed the court system. There are also concerns that if the shutdown continues for several more weeks, it will harm the overall economy.
Most Republicans in Congress, including those leaders who will also be in the meeting with the president, have backed the president, though there were signs of a fraying alliance as two vulnerable senators from Democratic-leaning states, Cory Gardner of Colorado and Susan Collins of Maine, expressed misgivings over their leaders’ intransigence. Mr. Gardner called on his party to end the shutdown, even if it meant not funding the wall, and Ms. Collins said she would support measures to fund the government in already approved appropriations bills.
Sean Hannity, a Fox News commentator close to Mr. Trump, may have signaled a way out, when he suggested on his program Thursday night that the president resurrect the old Democratic notion of twinning wall funding and protecting from deportation young immigrants brought illegally to the country as children, so-called Dreamers.
Such immigrants are currently protected by DACA, the program created by President Barack Obama, but Democrats would likely want something more, the Dream Act, which would protect young immigrants by statute and offer them a path to citizenship.
A compromise linking the younger immigrants to the wall has been floated by Senators Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, and Lamar Alexander, Republican of Tennessee.
But Mr. Trump is also facing pressure from his base to deliver on the wall, a central promise of his presidential campaign. Mr. Graham said Wednesday in an interview on Fox News that Mr. Trump’s presidency could effectively be ended if he abandoned the wall pledge. And the president this week rejected the “Dreamers for wall” idea.
On Thursday, Mr. Trump made a dramatic appearance in the White House Briefing Room, his first as president, trying to press his case for the wall by asking border agents to outline the threats posed by illegal immigration. But he simply reiterated his position and took no questions.
Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, would typically be a central player in the negotiations. So far, though, he has held back, contending that it is up to Democrats to fashion a solution that the president could accept.
The House has already passed a two-bill package to reopen the government. The first measure combines six separate bills that have already garnered bipartisan support in the Republican-led Senate; they would reopen nearly all of the shuttered agencies and fund them through Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year.
The second is a stopgap spending measure to fund the Department of Homeland Security through Feb. 8 — a date that Mr. McConnell proposed toward the end of last year in a measure that passed the Senate by voice vote, but which the president rejected, triggering the partial shutdown.
Mr. McConnell has refused to take up the House package, insisting that he will not bring anything to the floor that Mr. Trump will not sign. Democrats intend to argue in the meeting that Mr. McConnell should at the least pass the cluster of appropriations bills, while continuing to negotiate over border security. In their last meeting, Mr. Trump rejected that idea, telling the group, “I would look foolish if I did that.”
Mr. McConnell, meanwhile, is waiting for guidance from Mr. Trump. The Senate Republican leader has absented himself from the talks, insisting that it is up to Democrats to resolve the impasse. But he is beginning to face pressure from vulnerable Republicans who are worried about their re-election prospects in 2020.