Military salutes. Heaps of contraband. Oval Office optics.
President Donald Trump, who has long put a premium on stagecraft, is discovering he cannot resolve the partial government shutdown simply by putting on a show.
With the standoff over paying for his long-promised U.S.-Mexico wall dragging on, the president’s Oval Office address and visit to the Texas border this past week failed to break the logjam. Aides and allies are fearful that he has misjudged Democratic resolve and is running out of negotiating options.
Using the trappings of the White House to make a point is a standard procedure. Dramatic public displays have been Trump’s negotiating go-to. But even Trump was skeptical that the speech and trip would make a difference.
Some in the White House argue that Trump’s moves helped push his message. But many associates fear his hand is weakening as his efforts to define the stakes must compete with the testimonials of hardship from federal workers and people in need of shuttered government services. That may leave a national emergency declaration as Trump’s only escape path — one more showy strategy that could backfire.
Trump defended his approach Saturday, telling critics on Twitter that “there’s almost nobody in the W.H. but me, and I do have a plan on the Shutdown.” During a telephone interview with a Fox News Channel host later that night, Trump insisted that he hadn’t “left the White House in months” and he called on Democrats to come to the table. The Texas trip was two days earlier.
Former Trump campaign aide Sam Nunberg said Trump was simply using all available tools. Nunberg argued that Trump’s border visit, which included an interview on the president’s preferred network, Fox News, was “not going to win any hearts and minds.” But he added that the Oval Office address was a “great opportunity” for Trump to make his case to an audience of millions well beyond his most loyal supporters.
In a moment of deep political divisions, though, the presidential megaphone does not seem to hold the power it once did.
Democratic leaders have dismissed Trump’s tactics. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., last week decrying the “soap opera that the president’s petulance and obstinance is creating.”
Trump’s visit to McAllen, Texas was staged for maximum impact.
At a border patrol facility, he surveyed mounds of drugs and weapons seized by agents. He hugged tearful families who spoke of relatives killed by those in the United States illegally. He traveled to a dusty bluff above the Rio Grande and saluted a border patrol helicopter as it flew past.
The stop was intended to reinforce Trump’s claims of chaos and crisis at the border, but it was notable for what was left out. The contraband was designed to emphasize the dangers of an unsecured border. But there was only passing mention that the drugs were intercepted at official points of entry, not in open areas where Trump wants to build a wall. Trump did meet with victims and agents, but he did not go to a nearby facility where hundreds of the migrant children were detained in cages after being separated from their parents last year.
Allies say Trump has dug in for good reason: building a wall has always been a sure-fire applause line for Trump. Some, however, believe it has become a political albatross.
Trump promised the wall during his campaign as part of his immigration platform. At his rallies, he encouraged supporters to chant “Build the wall! Build the wall!” and he pledged that Mexico would pay for it.
Since coming to the White House, he has failed to get Mexico to pay for the wall and has struggled to advance his immigration policies in Congress, even when Republicans were in full control of both chambers. With Democrats now in the majority in the House, his leverage has dwindled.
Increasingly, many around Trump think that the only way out of the shutdown impasse is for the president to declare a national emergency to try and pay for the wall by diverting federal funds from other programs. They reason that such a declaration would wind up in court, but Trump could reopen government in the meantime and say he was continuing the fight for the wall during the legal fight. It’s a play that would be in keeping with Trump’s pattern of claiming victory even when the circumstances are murky.
In June, Trump declared his summit with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un was a groundbreaking achievement although it yielded only a vaguely worded commitment from the North to denuclearize. In November, Trump claimed historic wins in the midterm elections even though Republicans lost control of the House. In early 2017, he held a Rose Garden celebration after a health care overhaul passed the House, seeking to claim the victory before it passed both chambers, which it never did.
Trump’s public posturing has moved the needle at times. His administration’s push helped get a tax overhaul over the finish line. His tariffs fight with China has brought both sides to the negotiating table.
Still, as Trump tries to find a way out of the shutdown impasse, Republican consultant Rick Tyler argued that some of the president’s ploys may be getting stale.
“There’s a reason the circus comes to town for a week,” he said. “He’s worn out his act.”
Catherine Lucey has covered politics and the White House for The Associated Press since 2012.
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