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Inside the White House, aides and advisers are despondent over a wasted month

Posted: 10:59 AM, Jan 26, 2019
Updated: 2019-01-26 13:59:30-05

As President Donald Trump announced in the Rose Garden on Friday that his quixotic bid to secure more than $5 billion for a border wall would end with no money, he was met with applause from his Cabinet secretaries and senior aides.

But the clapping belied a pervasive sense of defeat.

Instead of emerging victorious, many of Trump's allies are walking away from a record-breaking government shutdown feeling outplayed, not least by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The President is now more unpopular than he was before the shutdown began, sacked with blame for the 35-day lapse in funding.

Friday's announcement was an extraordinary comedown that left many in the White House and those who support Trump marveling at the futility of the preceding four weeks of brinkmanship. In the eyes of some aides and outside advisers, an entire fruitless month has passed that cannot be recouped, a waste of the most valuable asset a White House has: the President's attention and time.

"A humiliating loss for a man that rarely loses," one Trump adviser said. "I miss winning."

Backing down

Pictures on Friday of delayed aircraft at LaGuardia Airport in his hometown — the same tarmac Trump's black, red and gold Boeing 757 is usually staged — sealed what had been a days-long realization that the shutdown must end, according to officials.

The previous evening, Trump heard from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in a phone call that Republicans could no longer hold the line in support of his border wall demands. Trump, who was briefed by aides of looming law enforcement and airport problems, later phoned McConnell back to tell him he was ready to end the stalemate.

Top advisers, including Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner and Vice President Mike Pence, presented him with options, including insisting upon a "prorated" amount of border wall money included in a three-week stopgap funding measure, or declaring a national emergency.

Those were both ideas Trump appeared initially to endorse. On Thursday from the Cabinet Room he repeatedly mentioned "alternate" ways of funding the wall and offered support for "prorated" wall money. But Kushner and other aides warned a national emergency would prompt legal challenges and not lead to immediate wall construction. And when Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer balked at a wall "down payment," it became clear that only a bill with zero border funding would muster enough support for passage.

New political reality

Trump remains hopeful that some moderate Democrats will join him in supporting funding for a border wall after the funding measure expires in mid-February. Administration officials say he would be willing to accept less than the $5.7 billion he has insisted upon in an attempt to strike an accord.

Acknowledging a new political reality with Pelosi in charge, one adviser said the only way forward for Trump is "compromise," with little room for the no-holds-barred approach favored by advisers like Stephen Miller, the immigration hardliner.

"Today is not a cave but a grave for Stephen Miller policies," the adviser said, acknowledging it's not clear at all that Trump is ready to make that kind of course correction.

Border wall obsessed

During most of the shutdown, Trump remained singularly focused on the wall, declining to travel much and declaring at regular intervals that he was alone in the White House, waiting to negotiate. The shutdown made for the longest stretch of Trump's presidency that he did not play golf. What was supposed to be a three-week stay at his South Florida estate turned into an extended cloistering at the White House.

Over the December holidays and into January, he remained in the executive mansion alone while first lady Melania Trump escaped to Florida. He recalled peering out his window in a moment of loneliness to watch "machine gunners" pace around the White House grounds.

In the final week of the shutdown, Trump's cabin fever was evident. He began multiple meetings in the West Wing by sarcastically intoning "welcome to paradise," according to people in the room.

By the time he was speaking from the Rose Garden Friday, the President was exasperated his gambit had failed. The only redeeming factor: the announcement bumped news of the arrest and indictment of his onetime confidante Roger Stone from the cable news airwaves, however briefly.

A wasted month

Publicly, the White House has insisted that Trump's decision is not a concession. Nearly his entire cabinet assembled in the Rose Garden to applaud him as he announced a plan to reopen the government. And Trump himself sought to dissuade his followers of the notion he'd abandoned the quest for the wall in an evening tweet.

"I wish people would read or listen to my words on the Border Wall," he wrote. "This was in no way a concession. It was taking care of millions of people who were getting badly hurt by the Shutdown with the understanding that in 21 days, if no deal is done, it's off to the races!"

His optimism aside, many officials expressed real regret that Trump effectively wasted a full month of his presidency on the wall fight, with little action or attention to any non-border items. By extending the battle another three weeks, it's unclear whether Trump is interested in pursuing any other domestic policy items aside from the border wall.

Acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and other senior aides have tried to gauge which issues Trump wants to take up after the border fight is done— be it drug pricing, trade, infrastructure, or something else. But they've made little progress. Trump does expect to meet next month with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, but even those plans have taken second billing to the border standoff.

That's a bad omen for some conservatives and policy-minded officials, many of whom say they believe Trump doesn't appreciate how finite his presidency really is.

Veterans of past administrations have tried imparting this to him to little avail, according to people familiar with the conversations. That's left many inside the White House, and others who advise Trump, feeling like he's let a whole month go by with nothing to show for it.

Souring mood

Two people who talk to Trump regularly said that over the past week or so the President had been in a very sour mood amid the shutdown episode -- a state of mind that only worsened as Friday approached and he realized he was losing the fight. Already a mercurial boss, Trump has lashed out at aides he believes bear some responsibility for the morass.

His aides and advisers are frustrated too, and disappointed over the way Trump boxed himself in during a fateful Oval Office meeting in December, where, with cameras rolling, Trump told Pelosi and Schumer that he would proudly shut the government down over the border wall. He later sought to shirk responsibility, but his words were on tape. And he began steadily being outmaneuvered by Democrats, particularly Pelosi, whose ploy to deprive Trump of a State of the Union address dealt a preliminary blow this week.

For Trump, the border wall -- which began as a rhetorical device at his campaign rallies — has become something much larger, an extension of himself so personal that he can't let it go.

Measuring the fallout

There is now concern among some Republicans that, at least in the short-term, GOP fundraising could suffer as donors fume over his failed tactics. And Trump aides are bracing for Trump's mood to sour even more as he takes in the negative coverage about his decision, including from the right.

"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," Ann Coulter, the conservative firebrand, wrote on Twitter.

Still, the government reopening could allow for the White House to move on to other matters, at least temporarily. Though as of Saturday morning, the President remained fixated on the border, sending out a flurry of related tweets . "The case for National Security has been greatly enhanced by what has been happening at the Border & through dialogue. We will build the Wall!"

Some aides are hoping the end of the shutdown may finally lead to one happy development— a presidential jaunt south to Mar-a-Lago. "At least he can golf again," one aide sighed.

No trip is currently on the books.