Caught between the political savvy of Nancy Pelosi and the wrath of Ann Coulter the president secured not a penny for his wall
David Smith in Washington
Richard Nixon once said there can be no whitewash at the White House. But it would be fair to say there is now a white flag.
It was metaphorically waved by Donald Trump in a chilly yet sunny Rose Garden on Friday when he declared an end to the partial government shutdown after 35 tortuous days.
The US president did not get his wall. All those federal government workers missing pay cheques and queueing at food banks, also those long lines at airports and fears over passenger safety, all that rubbish piling up in national parks, all the political pain inflicted on Trump and Republicans was for nothing. He wanted $5.7bn and he got $0.
So why cave now? There are three likely reasons. First, there was the political pressure. Asked how he went bankrupt, a character in Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises answers: “Gradually and then suddenly.” The bad news built gradually over Christmas and the new year, then suddenly on Friday as a shortage of air traffic controllers caused significant flight delays and I-regret-voting-for-Trump interviews reached a crescendo.
Second, if Trump was going to cut his losses, he might as well do it now in the hope that he can deliver his State of the Union address as planned on Tuesday, or at least soon after. It is the sort of big televised moment that he no doubt fantasised about when he first ran for president. The House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, told him it would be postponed until the government reopened. Friday’s surrender marked Pelosi 2, Trump 0.
(Jackie Alemany, a Washington Post journalist, tweeted: “‘So I’m assuming Nancy Pelosi will be giving the State of the Union now, since she’s running the country,’ a former White House staffer texts.”)
Third, Trump is a master of distraction and throwing out shiny objects to divert attention. The day began with the potentially catastrophic arrest of his longtime adviser Roger Stone as part of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into alleged collusion with Russia. How better to knock Stone out of the headlines than by ending the longest government shutdown in American history.
At times breaking from the teleprompter to riff from the gut, Trump insisted: “Walls should not be controversial. Our country has built 654 miles of barrier over the last 15 years, and every career border patrol agent I have spoken with has told me that walls work. They do work. No matter where you go, they work. Israel built a wall – 99.9% successful. Won’t be any different for us.”
And he warned that, without a fair deal from Congress, he will shut down the government again on 15 February or play his last card: declaring a national emergency to get the funds from elsewhere. Later, at a meeting in the White House, he threatened: “We’ll work with the Democrats and negotiate and if we can’t do that, then we’ll do a – obviously we’ll do the emergency because that’s what it is. It’s a national emergency.”
But none of that is likely to satisfy the hard right who had been urging Trump to fight for the wall to the bitter end. Ann Coulter, author of In Trump We Trust, tweeted: “Good news for George Herbert Walker Bush: As of today, he is no longer the biggest wimp ever to serve as President of the United States.”
And so it was that Trump, a man hardly known for displays of respect to women, found himself crushed by Pelosi on his left and Coulter on his right. To paraphrase the film A Man for All Seasons, it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world … but for a wall?