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D.C. Memo: Wall brawl turns into slat spat

Shutdown continues; no one wants to run Defense Department; no longer too early to look at 2020 presidential field; and more.

photo of fence at border with wall prototypes in background
REUTERS/Jorge Duenes
President Donald Trump is demanding $5.7 billion for his beautiful, concrete border wall, or his beautiful set of steel slats, or whatever this thing on the U.S.-Mexico border is supposed to be now.
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This week in Washington, the government shutdown dragged on, leading to despair, declining functioning and an overall feeling of smelliness. (But enough about Congress!) President Trump and Democratic leaders are nowhere near a deal to end it, so POTUS “maybe definitely” will declare national emergency to build the wall, which would kill the wall, but who really cares?

This week in Washington

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Good afternoon from Washington, where the lights are mostly off for a quarter of the federal government, 20 days after funding ran out. This already one of the longest government shutdowns in history, and this week’s events proved that it could get even longer.

As you know, the sticking point is the Wall: President Donald Trump is demanding $5.7 billion for his beautiful, concrete border wall, or his beautiful set of steel slats, or whatever this thing on the U.S.-Mexico border is supposed to be now.

POTUS says he won’t reopen the government unless he gets a funding bill that contains the money he’s asking for to build the wall. When Democrats took over in the U.S. House last week, they passed funding bills without a dime of wall money, but that idea was dead on arrival in the GOP-held Senate. Flashback: In December, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and his conference voted to kick the funding can into the new session of Congress without any wall money. Now, they’ve mostly closed ranks around Trump.

The politics of all this are pretty rigid, and the sides are well dug in: Trump knows he can’t cave on the wall, since immigration hawks have (harshly) reminded him that his base won’t forgive him if he fails on his signature campaign promise. With public polling consistently showing most people don’t want a shutdown over the wall (or even the wall to begin with) Democrats have even less of an incentive to take the president’s “compromise” — one in which they get little in return besides ending a shutdown that Trump already declared he owns, anyway. (The Washington Post’s Dave Weigel dove a bit more into just why Democrats have few reasons to budge; the San Francisco Chronicle explored what happened to the whole “Dreamers for a Wall” trade-off that was mulled last year.)

Ostensibly in hopes of breaking the stalemate, Trump addressed the nation from the Oval Office on Tuesday night to make his case for the wall. (Which, as the New York Times reports, he only did because his communications team made him.) Reflecting a shifting White House strategy, Trump framed the border as a humanitarian and national security crisis, and a border wall as a big part of the solution. Literally everyone fact-checked this speech — which contained many of Trump’s truth-stretching greatest hits — from the New York Times to Fox News anchor Shep Smith.

Perspectives on the address: Politico editor John Harris analyzes why the traditional bully-pulpit Oval address is a particularly bad fit for this unconventional president. WaPo’s Daily 202 argues Trump’s speech fell flat and was overshadowed by a big bit of news from the Russia investigation.

Capitol Hill’s Democratic leaders — newly-minted Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate leader Chuck Schumer — jointly responded to Trump’s address on camera Tuesday night. Their shoulder-to-shoulder performance was, as WaPo reports, an illustration of how strikingly collaborative the two leaders have been in presenting a united Democratic opposition to Trump during the shutdown. (A wrinkle in this from Politico: new Democratic reps from purple and red districts are “freaking out” over the shutdown and fear they’re losing the messaging war.)

The relatively united Democratic front is good for them, because relations between Trump and “Chuck and Nancy” reached a historic low on Wednesday: An irate POTUS reportedly walked out of a White House negotiation session with Democratic and Republican congressional leaders after quickly concluding it was a waste of his time. (Trump offered the Democrats candy, according to Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, before the meeting hit a sour patch.)

McCarthy later told reporters outside the West Wing that it was Trump who was calm and Democrats who embarrassed themselves; in the same spot, Pelosi quipped Trump can’t understand what it’s like to be furloughed if you can’t ask your dad for more money. So, yeah, things aren’t going great.

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What happens now? It seems increasingly likely, reports Politico, that Trump will look for other ways to get his wall — possibly by declaring a “national emergency” at the border that would open up some funds for construction but would also definitely get challenged in the courts. The realpolitik take on this move is that it gives Trump an off-ramp from the shutdown while saving face with his supporters. Republicans, who are theoretically inclined against executive overreach, mostly shrugged at the emergency idea. (Could be a good time to consider the “what if Obama did it” thought experiment.)

Politico reports that GOP leaders are privately fretting that appetite for the shutdown is waning in their camp, and there are at least a few Republican senators (most of whom are up for re-election in 2020) who are inclined to open the government without wall funding. Sen. Tina Smith told me on Wednesday that she’s hoping they will band with Democrats to pass “clean” spending bills this week — which would force Trump to use his veto pen.

After a Wednesday of failed negotiations, the president visited the border Thursday, where he said some stuff. Before taking off, POTUS told this to reporters about a national emergency: “Probably I will do it, I would almost say definitely.” (Clears things up.)

Amid all this, the government shutdown drags on, affecting people around the country. Some of the effects are relatively minor, if unpleasant: national parks are open, but many aren’t being staffed or cleaned, so piles of garbage and human excrement are literally overflowing in the country’s most beautiful places.

Others effects are more serious: Though only part of the government is closed, many crucial federal programs to support health care in tribal communities, affordable housing for vulnerable people, and highway construction are on hold or are at risk of running out of money. Like food that isn’t dangerous? Too bad: the Food and Drug Administration has reportedly suspended routine food inspections during the shutdown.

Minnesota lawmakers pointed out some other downstream shutdown effects: Federal employees who are supposed to be implementing new Farm Bill programs for farmers, Rep. Collin Peterson pointed out this week, are furloughed; elsewhere, NASA’s doors are closed as China landed a craft on the moon last week, as Sen. Amy Klobuchar pointed out in a video message on Tuesday.

The shutdown has gone on long enough that federal workers are now not getting paid. Many are struggling to make ends meet: Furloughed workers are taking up whatever side jobs they can and piling up credit card debt in order to support their families. HuffPost has a good look at how the workforce is faring.

Government agencies are helpfully coming up with alternative ideas: the Coast Guard, reports WaPo, encouraged Guardsmen to have garage sales. In D.C., where some 145,000 workers are furloughed, everyone is feeling the hurt: the NYT reports that restaurant owners are lamenting the “ghost town” the capital has become.

As a show of shutdown solidarity, several Minnesota members of Congress are refusing their salaries while the government is shut down. Freshman Reps. Pete Stauber, Dean Phillips, and Angie Craig are all donating their paychecks to local charities. GOP Rep. Tom Emmer asked administrators to withhold his pay during the shutdown. (Members of Congress make $174,000 per year.) WaPo has more on the few dozen lawmakers who are foregoing pay.

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News from the administration: apparently, no one wants to run the Department of Defense in the wake of former chief Jim Mattis’ resignation in December. Several possible successors have turned Trump down, such as former Sen. Jon Kyl and former Gen. Jack Keane. Meanwhile, the acting Pentagon chief is drawing scrutiny for his deep ties to defense and aerospace giant Boeing.

The aftermath of Trump’s abrupt decision last month to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria continues to be very weird and very hard to understand. National security adviser John Bolton, reports the NYT, is slow-walking troop withdrawals as Trump sort of backs down on his rhetoric that proclaimed the U.S. should leave immediately because ISIS is defeated.

New year, new session of Congress! Last week, five (five!) new members of Congress from Minnesota were sworn in, meaning that exactly half of our state’s delegation is made up of newbies. The bright-eyed freshmen are taking their offices, voting on their first bills, and even getting a start on backing down from their campaign promises. (They grow up so fast!)

In the House, the new Democratic majority is getting to work: in the last week, they’ve rolled out their top legislative priority — a sweeping anti-corruption, good-government reform bill that I wrote about this week — and introduced bipartisan gun control legislation. It’s doubtful these efforts will survive the GOP Senate, but Dems don’t need the Senate’s approval to investigate the administration, and they got started on that front, too: they’re threatening to subpoena acting AG Matt Whitaker to get him to testify about Trump’s influence over the Department of Justice, and are hauling Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin before lawmakers to talk about Russia sanctions.

Now that it’s 2019, I feel much better about diving into 2020 news — and there’s been a lot of it! A decision on a presidential bid is coming “soon” from Sen. Klobuchar, though there hasn’t been too much rumbling about her doing the kind of behind-the-scenes groundwork that some hopefuls are rushing to do right now. (Politico’s Playbook did report, however, that Mark Cuban — the billionaire Democratic donor and entrepreneur who was buzzed about as a 2020 candidate himself — was spotted heading into Klobuchar’s D.C. office on Tuesday.)

Elsewhere in the emerging field: California Sen. Kamala Harris is checking out campaign HQ office space ahead of a likely announcement later this month; 2018 sensation Beto O’Rourke is talking about driving around outside of Texas to “pop in” to places and meet people, which exposes him as either a presidential wannabe or, uh, Mark Zuckerberg circa 2017; CNBC reports that Harris, along with Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, Cory Booker, and others, are sending out feelers to Wall Street about backing possible campaigns, a traditional Democratic Party rite of passage.

Meanwhile, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren is already out of the gate, having announced on New Year’s Day that she is forming a “presidential exploratory committee,” which means that she’s running and simply wants to raise a ton of money and kick the campaign trail tires before officially announcing her campaign. (Bookmark this from Vox when every other candidate does the same thing.)

This week’s essential reads

In the last year, it’s possible you may have gotten an email from Democratic groups asking you for money in apocalyptic terms, with subject lines like “Trump HUMILIATED” and “We’re on the verge of BANKRUPTCY!” The all-caps, fear-based approach to fundraising, reports WaPo, has been one of the most lucrative ways for firms to cash in on the wave of small-donor cash that fueled Democrats’ House takeover, and could be a big part of the 2020 race. They looked at one D.C. firm, called Mothership Strategies:

Its lightning-quick rise also has sparked consternation in Democratic circles, where Mothership is sometimes derided as the “M-word” because of its aggressive and sometimes misleading tactics, such as claiming in fundraising appeals that President Trump is preparing to fire the special counsel. Some critics call its approach unethical, saying the company profits off stoking fear of Trump and making the sort of exaggerated claims they associate with the president. …

The company’s three millennial founders are unapologetic about their tactics — so much so that one employee’s bio on the company’s website touts she has “mastered the ALL CAPS SUBJECT LINE.”

The tone of their email appeals, they said, is in keeping with the Trump era.

Love him or hate him, Harry Reid is one of the defining figures of Congress’ modern era, a ruthless political tactician with a lengthy list of legislative achievements (or black marks, if you’re so inclined). Recently diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, he may not have much longer. The New York Times Magazine’s Mark Leibovich traveled to Las Vegas to catch up with Reid, and shows how the infamous political brawler — in retirement and in his twilight — can’t really quit the fight.

Leaving Washington on the eve of Trump’s takeover, Reid insisted that he was happy to be escaping. Maybe, he allowed, it would have been different if Hillary Clinton had won. But “with this, no,” he told New York magazine at the time. “I’m not going to miss it.”

And yet, two years later, it was easy to sense him pining for not just the political action but also the particular political action of Trump’s Washington. “No one would enjoy the fight with Trump like Harry Reid would,” said Senator Claire McCaskill, the Missouri Democrat who lost her re-election race in November. The president “is an inherently weak man,” she said. “Harry would smell the weakness and say, ‘Damn the consequences.’ ”

In some ways, Washington, under Trump, has devolved into the feral state that Reid, in his misanthropic heart, always knew it could become under the right conditions. Politicians are always claiming to be eternal optimists; Reid is no optimist. “I figure, if you’re pessimistic, you’re never disappointed,” he told me.

The week in takes

Your weekend longread

The U.S.-Mexico border, what’s going on there, and who is there is at the center of the shutdown and the broader U.S. political conversation. So it’s as good a time as any to take in a well-reported dispatch from the border, from New York magazine’s Mattathias Schwartz, who spoke with migrants but also rode around with Border Patrol agents and spoke extensively with them for the story.

The central question: does seeing the border through the eyes of the people who guard it — a group that largely supports the president’s agenda on immigration — change your mind about what’s going on there?

The complexity of the Border Patrol’s overlapping areas of responsibility (human rights, state building, drugs, criminal gangs, counterterrorism) reminded me of a gripe that a U.S. military commander in Afghanistan had once heard from one of his lieutenants. “General, the troops you’ve got here on the ground are like a first-rate college football team,” he’d said. “And now you’re asking us to dance the ballet.”

In some ways, the dance the Border Patrol is engaged in under Trump is even more complicated than the military’s. Strict rules separate soldiers from the civilian world of politics and policy decisions; the Border Patrol, meanwhile, has been engaged in a public lobbying campaign around some of the very policies it is theoretically a neutral agent in carrying out. Listen to the running commentary on immigration issues from Border Patrol sector chiefs on Fox News, and it is easy to mistake the agency for a uniformed, gun-toting arm of the Republican Party. …

Cabrera said that family separations were “much ado about nothing” and that most parents were reunited with their children in a matter of hours. He explained that in some cases, an outsider might perceive that a family separation had occurred when really it was a child who had been matched with a stranger by an unscrupulous smuggler.

There was another case he knew of in which Border Patrol agents had misunderstood a man who claimed to be a child’s father but wasn’t able to make the case convincingly. The family was separated, and several days passed before the Border Patrol realized he had been telling the truth. As I listened to this last anecdote, it wasn’t hard to hear that the consequences of the zero-tolerance policy still weighed on him. “That’s what bothers our guys the most,” he told me. “Being called Nazis. We’re trying to help.”

What to look for next week

On Saturday, the shutdown — if it’s still going, which it likely will be — will become the longest government closure in U.S. history. Beyond that, I really have no idea what’s going on next week. Will Trump and Congress strike a deal? Will POTUS declare a national emergency and then not build the wall? Is Mexico paying for anything? We’ll find out on next week’s edition of The Apprentice: Shutdown.

In the meantime, expect to hear more about how the shutdown continues to impact the country’s functioning. I’ll have more on this for you on Friday.

Next week on Capitol Hill, we’ll get a blockbuster hearing: Trump’s nominee for attorney general, William Barr, will appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee for his confirmation hearing. Barr, who held the AG role under President George H.W. Bush, spent the week making the customary pre-hearing visits to senators — just not Democratic ones. Klobuchar, a member of the Judiciary Committee, said on MSNBC on Wednesday that she was told Barr couldn’t meet with her due to the shutdown. (Barr did meet with several GOP senators, despite the shutdown.)

On Thursday, Klobuchar tweeted that she’d set up a meeting with Barr for this afternoon. Mission accomplished.

We’ll be watching all that and more next week. Thanks for coming along this week. Until next time, email me: