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Why President Trump may want a 'good shutdown'

Why We Wrote This

If Congress can’t agree on issues such as funding for a border wall, key parts of the government could shut down. But while the president seems eager for the fight, there are political risks for Republicans.

Adrees Latif/Reuters
Migrants from Central America encountered tear gas while attempting to cross the border into the United States from Tijuana, Mexico, Nov. 25. Congressional negotiations on government funding have bogged down over border security and other issues, and a possible government shutdown now looms.

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As the final, lame-duck portion of the 115th Congress begins, and Republicans enter their waning days in control of the House, the possibility of a partial government shutdown is looming. President Trump speaks of a shutdown regularly, as a way to sharpen the stakes of a tension-filled border debate and to please his political base. A shutdown in early December would actually involve only one-quarter of the government, as most departments are already funded through September 2019. But among those awaiting funding for next month is the Department of Homeland Security, which includes the Border Patrol – and congressional negotiations have bogged down over money for Mr. Trump’s long-promised border wall with Mexico. Funding for the Justice Department would also expire in a shutdown, giving Trump the power to decide if special counsel Robert Mueller is an “essential” employee and therefore still able to work. Still, Republican strategist Rick Tyler, a Trump critic, finds all the shutdown talk odd. “I’ve never known anybody to advocate for a shutdown,” Mr. Tyler says. “Because a shutdown is really a failure of leadership on both sides. A leader’s job is to find common ground and get an agreement.”

Since the early days of his presidency, Donald Trump has been talking about shutting down the very institution he campaigned to lead: the federal government. Sometimes he frames such a move as a “good shutdown,” much the way people used to talk about a child needing a “good spanking.”

The goal of a “good shutdown,” President Trump tweeted last year, was to fix the “mess” in Washington. Since then, the federal government has shut down twice, as congressional funding has lapsed, but so briefly as to be hardly noticeable. And certainly, Washington still isn’t performing as Mr. Trump would like. For one, Congress still hasn’t funded his long-promised border wall with Mexico.

Now, as the final, lame-duck portion of the 115th Congress begins, and the Republicans enter their waning days in control of the House, the possibility of a partial shutdown looms. Funding for several critical departments is due to expire Dec. 7. Trump speaks of a shutdown regularly, as a way to sharpen the stakes of a tension-filled border debate, please his political base, and set up the politics of 2020 with a slam on Democrats as soft on migrant caravans full of “criminals.”

For GOP legislators, there’s a big downside to headlines about a “government shutdown.” During the lame duck, they will still control both houses of Congress. It’s their last chance to show that Republicans can govern constructively, with both the legislative and executive branches in their hands.

Still, for Trump, the timing may be right for a “good shutdown,” say Republicans sympathetic to the president. The next general election is nearly two years away, and so memories of any negative fallout would fade. And for Trump supporters, a shutdown would show a commitment to one of his core campaign promises, still a sure-fire chant at rallies: “Build that wall!”

“If he’s going to go all in for the border wall, this is the best time to do it,” says Republican strategist Ford O’Connell.

A “shutdown” in early December would actually involve only one-quarter of the government, as most departments are already funded through September 2019. Among those departments awaiting funding is the Department of Homeland Security, which includes the border patrol. Though as with all shutdowns, agency heads are empowered to exempt “essential personnel,” so the critical functions of government – including border security – would not stop.

In short, to most Americans a “shutdown” would be largely notional – albeit disruptive to furloughed government employees and not without costs to the economy, but a headline that Trump may feel works to his advantage. And besides, the former reality TV star president seems to love drama.

Sticking points

Negotiations on government funding have bogged down over issues that include funding for border security. Senate legislation provides $1.6 billion, while the House bill allocates $5 billion. The Senate bill has support from members of both parties, while the House bill is built just on GOP votes. Trump has argued for as much as $25 billion in wall funding, but the final number is likely to come in closer to the Senate figure than that in the House, according to reports.

For all concerned, the optics are key. No Republicans in Congress are rooting for a shutdown, but some are more willing than others to make Trump’s case about the US-Mexico border.

“Look, this is a national security interest of ours,” Rep. Mike Johnson (R) of Louisiana, incoming chair of the conservative House Republican Study Committee, said Sunday on Fox News. He cited human traffickers, drug cartels, and “radicalized terrorists coming across the border undetected.”

Still, Congressman Johnson predicted that a government shutdown wouldn’t be necessary to get the funding needed to secure the border.

Democrats are already framing their arguments for the inevitable blame game, should a shutdown occur.

“If the president of the United States, who already is a historically unpopular president, is seen as causing the inconveniences and other problems associated with a government shutdown, it's going to be a real political problem for him,” Rep. Jim Himes (D) of Connecticut said Sunday on Fox News. “It won't be the Democrats in the House of Representatives that are shutting down the government. It'll be the president.”

Democrats, in a way, have the best of both worlds. They can block legislation in the Senate by filibustering, which requires 60 votes to overcome (the GOP currently has a 51-49 majority in that chamber). But the image in Washington is of a Republican Party with total control, and so it may be easy for Democrats to convince the public that the GOP, with Trump in charge, is to blame.

The importance of optics

Some 55 percent of registered voters (and 34 percent of Republicans) do not support a shutdown over the border wall, according to a poll by Morning Consult. Democrats have floated the idea of legislation to protect special counsel Robert Mueller and to eliminate a question on the next census about citizenship as bargaining chips. But Morning Consult found a 47 percent plurality said a bill protecting Mr. Mueller’s job wasn’t worth shutting down the government. The poll didn’t ask about the census.

Another wild card is that funding for the Justice Department would expire in a shutdown, and Trump would have the power to decide if Mueller is an “essential” employee and therefore still able to work. Employees deemed “nonessential” are not allowed to work during a shutdown.

Trump seems unfazed by public opinion on a shutdown. And when asked by reporters, Trump repeats his willingness – at times enthusiastically – to shut down the government over border wall funding.

“This would be a very good time to do a shutdown,” Trump told reporters at the White House before Thanksgiving, adding that he didn’t think it would be necessary. “I think the Democrats will come to their senses, and if they don’t come to their senses, we will continue to win elections.”

Republican strategist Rick Tyler, a Trump critic, finds all the shutdown talk odd.

“I’ve never known anybody to advocate for a shutdown,” Mr. Tyler says. “Because a shutdown is really a failure of leadership on both sides. A leader’s job is to find common ground and get an agreement, based on a win-win.”

Democratic strategist Jim Manley also sees the shutdown talk as a nonstarter.

“Unless the president gives up a lot in the upcoming negotiations, he’s not getting the $5 billion for his beloved border wall,” says Mr. Manley, former spokesman for retired Democratic Senate leader Harry Reid. “Democratic leaders would be run out of town if they agreed to that.”

But the real negotiations haven’t started yet. And nothing will be decided until the last moment, as usual. If Trump really wants to get some mileage out of a “good shutdown,” if only with his existing supporters, Tyler says, he’ll have to make a big deal out of it.

“I don’t think [House Democratic leader] Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats are afraid of a shutdown, because most people don’t notice it,” Tyler says. “He’d have to make a spectacle of it to get it even noticed. But my guess is if it’s going to be about a blame game, which Trump wants, two-thirds will blame him and one-third will blame her. I’d take those odds.”

Editor’s note: Congressman Johnson’s office reached out Nov. 29 to clarify a statement he made Sunday on Fox News that seemed to suggest he supported a shutdown over border security funds. Johnson issued the following statement: “Clearly we do not want a government shutdown, and thankfully, I don’t think it will come to that. I expect the president will get the wall funding he has been asking for the past two years, and I fully support the wall as a necessity. This is a national security issue, and it is imperative we secure our borders and protect the American people.”

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