Donald Trump is losing the battle to avoid blame for the government shutdown, according to a new poll. The president has reportedly told advisers he thinks the 23-day partial closure of the US government, the longest ever, is a win for him
Around the US, about 800,000 federal workers face increasing hardship without pay and government departments are underfunded and understaffed. Vital services including airport security and nutritional aid to poorer Americans are under increasing strain.
On Sunday the president remained in a drastically understaffed White House, tweeting criticism of Democrats and inflammatory messages about migrants and crime, in one case apparently taken directly from Fox News.
ABC News and the Washington Post released a poll that followed trendswhen it showed 53% of respondents saying Trump and Republicans in Congress were to blame for the shutdown, with 29% blaming Democrats and 13% a combination. Support for building a border wall, the issue at the heart of the shutdown, increased to 42%, from 34% in January 2018. Among Republicans, 87% supported a wall.
Trump promised a wall on the southern border throughout his presidential campaign. He also promised Mexico would pay for it, which he now says will happen through savings from a new trade deal, a claim fact checkers doubt. He has demanded $5.7bn from Congress. Democrats refuse to give it. Senate Republicans, however, will not pass legislation sent by House Democrats to reopen the government without wall funding, as Trump would not sign it.
On Sunday, the Virginia Democratic senator Mark Warner told CNN’s State of the Union: “More border security? Let’s have at it. But while we’re opening the debate, let’s open the government.”
The Wisconsin Republican Ron Johnson, who chairs the Senate homeland security committee, told the same show Democrats should “stop being hypocrites and put their money where their mouth is and fund border barriers. They work”.
On Saturday night, Trump spoke to Fox host Jeannine Pirro by phone. Asked why he had yet to declare a national emergency, to build the wall with funds from military, disaster relief or other budgets, a step Democrats oppose but may be unable to stop, he said he was giving Congress a chance to “act responsibly”. But he also said he had “no idea” whether he will get a deal with House speaker Nancy Pelosi, who opposes funding an “ineffective, wasteful wall” she has also called “immoral”.
On Sunday the president first made an unlikely claim, that “many Hispanics will be coming over to the Republican side” because Democrats do not want to discuss reform to the status of undocumented migrants brought to the US children. The Dreamers issue was at the heart of a shutdown last year in which Trump’s demands for wall spending capsized a potential deal.
An ally of the president, South Carolina Republican senator Lindsey Graham, told Fox News on Sunday he encouraged Trump in a telephone conversation that morning to reopen government for a short period, in which he could to try to negotiate a deal, perhaps involving the Dreamers issue. But Trump, Graham said, wants a deal first.
Illinois senator Dick Durbin, the No2 Democrat in the Senate, told ABC’s This Week Trump could “open up this government tomorrow”, as “one phone call from [majority leader] Mitch McConnell can get it starte
“I’m in the White House, waiting,” the president wrote, regardless. “The Democrats are everywhere but Washington as people await their pay. They are having fun and not even talking!”
In fact Congress was out for the weekend and many legislators left Washington ahead of a snowstorm. In his Fox interview, Trump said “most” Democrats were “watching a certain musical in a very nice location”.
Host Jeanine Pirro said: “Of course, in Puerto Rico watching Hamilton.”
“Frankly,” Trump said, “it’s ridiculous. The whole thing is ridiculous.”
Around 30 congressional Democrats, Pelosi among them, were expected to visit Puerto Rico as the star and creator of Hamilton, Lin Manuel Miranda, opens the show there.
The trip has a political dimension: highlighting recovery work after Hurricane Maria, which devastated the island in 2017 and to which Trump’s response is a continuing source of controversy. Miranda’s father Luis Miranda, a Democratic consultant, told CBS News the politicians would “get to experience first hand the needs of the island, so that they go back and sort of fight Trump and the Republicans.”
Regarding the declaration of a national emergency, officials have explored diverting money from accounts including $13.9bn given to the Army Corps of Engineers after last year’s hurricanes and floods. That appeared to lose steam following an outcry. Other possibilities included asset forfeiture funds, money seized from criminals.
Some outside advisers to Trump say a national emergency would allow him to claim he was the one to act to reopen the government, while legal challenges would send the matter to court, allowing the president to continue to excite his supporters while not actually closing the government or starting wall construction.
Some Republicans believe such a declaration would usurp congressional power. Johnson told CNN he would “hate to see” an emergency declaration, “because if we do it we would go to court and we would not be building a wall”.
Senators, naturally, saw their chamber as key to ending the impasse. Durbin told ABC he thought the shutdown would end “when the Senate Republicans say ‘We’ve had enough. We’re not going to stand here and be blamed for this.’”
Pelosi has argued that Trump is merely trying to steer attention away from special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation and other White House problems.
“This is a big diversion, and he’s a master of diversion,” she told reporters.
Trump’s volcanic reaction to reports this weekend in the New York Times and Washington Post suggested he might be losing that mastery.