Trump held government workers hostage for a month — and walked away with nothing

Analysis: The self-described deal-maker president gave up the ransom and the hostage for... a conference committee.
Image: Donald Trump
Trump's Friday gains were modest. His defeat was profound.Jacquelyn Martin / AP

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By Jonathan Allen

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump promised a wall. He got a procedural death trap.

More than that, he undermined the brand he's tried to build as an indefatigable fighter, a master strategist and the world's savviest deal-maker. On all those counts, he lost — and lost big — Friday.

Usually, the loser in Washington gets some sort of policy fig leaf to cover up for the fact that they were defeated. Trump got nada.

The deal he cut boils down to this: He gave up the $5.7 billion wall-money ransom he'd sought and the hostage he'd taken — his own government's operations — in exchange for Democrats agreeing to participate in a "conference committee," which is the legislative equivalent of a firing squad for his wall.

He did gain one more thing he probably didn't want — a lesson in messing with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. She stared him down over the border wall, the five-week partial government shutdown and the question of who decides whether and when he can deliver a State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress.

Trump gamely tried to declare victory by portraying Democrats as willing to acknowledge that some sort of border barrier is "part of the solution" to stopping illegal immigration and the flow of contraband across the southern border.

No one else is particularly confused about the fact that Trump swung for the fences and whiffed.

"Trump is the Babe Ruth of our era: he doesn't practice and he takes big, bold swings," said Dan Eberhart, a Republican donor who supports the president. "Sometimes he hits dramatic home runs. Shutting down the government over the border wall is a game-ending strikeout for his team."

Ann Coulter, the conservative commentator who has grown increasingly disillusioned with Trump, was less forgiving in comparing Trump to the president who famously broke his "no new taxes" pledge.

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"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," she tweeted.

And Rep. Dan Kildee, a Michigan Democrat, said Trump's remarks from the Rose Garden Friday were a first in his memory.

"I've seen a lot of presidents take a victory lap before," he said. "But this is the first time I've seen a president go to the Rose Garden and take a defeat lap."

Usually, Congress is willing to give a defeated president a fig leaf so that he can claim that a policy capitulation didn't come without some tangible concession from the other side. But there's no real deal here for Trump.

Democrats were already happy to increase funding for drug-detection technology and other enhancements to ports of entry — new spending that not only addresses border security in ways they approve of but also increases the base level of funding for domestic programs heading into next year's budget battles with the White House and Senate Republicans.

As for the conference committee, there's almost zero chance that it produces money for a border wall.

For a Schoolhouse Rock refresher, here's how it works: A group of senators and House members will meet to resolve the differences between the two chambers, with the majority of the Senate's set Republicans, and the majority of the House's Democrats, appointed by Pelosi. In order for the conference to write legislation that can be voted on in both chambers, a majority of each chamber's conferees have to sign it.

That means Pelosi's appointees can unilaterally block anything that funds a wall. So, the greatest likelihood is that the conference committee will either fail to come to an agreement, or will produce legislation that funds the Homeland Security Department but prohibits the money from being used for a wall.

Rachel Bovard, a former Republican Senate aide and policy director at the Conservative Policy Institute, said Democrats should be willing to discuss wall money in a conference committee.

"Dozens of Democrats have voiced support for a border wall, including [House Majority Leader] Steny Hoyer, but complained that it couldn't be negotiated in a shutdown," she said. "Trump is calling their bluff, and now Democrats have no excuse. They should help the GOP fund the border wall or be exposed as 'open borders radicals.' Democrats have a chance to do this in conference, otherwise the GOP should force votes in the Senate on these issues."

But the early signals on that front aren't good.

"Not a dime for his medieval border wall," House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., wrote on Twitter, using a castle emoji.

Even as he proclaimed a deal to temporarily end the shutdown, Trump nodded to the possibility that it could be short-lived.

"We really have no choice but to build a powerful wall or steel barrier," he said. "If we don’t get a fair deal from Congress, the government will either shut down on February 15th, again, or I will use the powers afforded to me under the laws and the Constitution of the United States to address this emergency."

In the interim, he may be allowed to deliver his State of the Union address from the House chamber, which Pelosi had said he could not do if government agencies were still closed Jan. 29.

His gains on Friday were modest. He got Congress to agree to go to conference on the Homeland spending bill, he might have resurrected his State of the Union speech and he stopped any further self-inflicted pain from a government shutdown that he could have ended in the same fashion at any time in the last five weeks.

His defeat was profound.