President Trump’s false statements and shifting position on the border wall have contradicted his own negotiators and frustrated Republicans he needs to fight battles for him on Capitol Hill. Now some are venting frustration at their inability to negotiate with the White House, or even locate a discernible position that could help end the government shutdown which is now entering its third week.
“The one thing you’ve got when you come into this place is your credibility, and once you lose it, it’s gone and it’s gone forever. He’s lost it,” Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) told VICE News just off the House floor. “It’s very difficult to negotiate anything, because you don’t know if he’s going to stick with it. You don’t know what his attitude is going to be tomorrow or what his position is going to be tomorrow.”
Simpson is on the powerful Appropriations Committee, which controls the federal pursestrings, and, as an 11-term veteran, he has clout that’s earned him the respect of many Democrats, along with his GOP colleagues. He says his frustration with the president and his made-for-TV spending battle isn’t unique.
“There’s a lot of members of our caucus who think this shutdown is stupid,” Simpson said.
The frustration has only increased since Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — who was assured by the White House that the president was behind him — got every Senate Republican to sign off on a bill in December to fund the government through February.
It sailed through unanimously, which surprised many political watchers because members of both parties hated the compromise but swallowed it anyway. But the legislation that would have avoided this shutdown drew backlash from conservative pundits, and then former Speaker Paul Ryan refused to bring it up and instead rallied his troops around a bill to give Trump $5 billion for his wall. That ordeal embarrassed many senior Republicans, including McConnell, and has left Democratic leaders refusing to even play Trump’s games this time around.
“We had a deal. Everybody in America knows we had a deal”
“We had a deal. Everybody in America knows we had a deal. That’s why McConnell passed the bill,” House Majority Whip Steny Hoyer told VICE News as he walked to the group photoshoot for newly elected Democratic Party leaders Thursday. “It’s very difficult to deal with a guy who you can’t trust will stay with what the deal is.”
After the House jammed McConnell and the Senate by sending them the wall funding bill, the White House appeared to want to avoid the shutdown. Trump sent Vice President Mike Pence and other top officials who told Democrats they would settle on $2.5 billion in wall and security funding, as opposed to the more than $5 billion the House passed. That was two weeks ago.
“Let's at least find a ballpark”
But this Wednesday Trump held a meandering cabinet meeting where he basically spoke to the cameras for 90 minutes and denied he had ever signed off on that lower number. That comment alone has some of the president’s top allies on the Hill tied in knots as they try to make sense of Trump’s view of reality – and where they fit into his alternative reality.
“I was part of those meetings. I know that Pence offered the $2.5 [billion],” Rep. Mark Walker (R-N.C.), the chair of the Republican Study Committee, a large block of mostly non-tea party conservatives, told VICE News in the Capitol. “But I don’t know that the president — if he just told Pence, ‘Go figure out a number there,’ or if it actually came from him, so I can’t tell you where the number originated from.”
That’s unheard-of in Washington. Either a vice president speaks for the president, or they’re freelancing — and vice presidents who freelance usually aren’t around for long.
But there’s no tension, because Walker now says he never thought the $2.5 billion number came from Trump. In fact, he now says the $2.5 billion number — the one he admitted Pence offered — wasn’t a firm number at all.
“No – I thought, ‘Let’s find at least a ballpark,’” Walker said. “I think Trump does move a little bit as far as the specifics, but I think that’s a part of the process of trying to figure out exactly what’s the right number.”
While Trump’s critics in both parties now accuse him of negotiating in bad faith and throwing his vice president under the bus, for some of Trump’s top allies, the ever-evolving targets that come from the president are now just a part of their reality.
House Freedom Caucus Chairman Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) was in those meetings with Pence when he floated the $2.5 billion. “He was very sincere in offering $2.5 — it was the counter-offer that came from the Democrats that was not sincere,” Meadows said, contradicting what Trump told the world at his Cabinet meeting on Wednesday.
For Meadows — who’s now predicting the shutdown will be the longest in the nation’s history — that’s a part of negotiating. The more Democrats reject offers that Trump himself has never endorsed, the higher the price tag for the wall goes.
“The longer that this drags out, the number does not get lower. It gets higher.”
“The longer that this drags out, the number does not get lower. It gets higher, and I think that that’s what you’re seeing from the president,” Meadows said.
Trusting the president
But some of the remaining moderate Republicans in Congress are pushing party leaders to get over the impasse.
“I think this requires everyone to sit in a room and solve this problem,” Rep. Will Hurd (R-Texas) told VICE News at the Capitol. “We just need cooler heads to prevail, and we need to know everybody’s negotiating from.”
Asked if he knows where Trump is negotiating from, Hurd said, “No, I don’t.”
But Republicans who voice their misgivings about Trump and his negotiating skills remain in the minority in the new minority party in the House. That means GOP lawmakers like Hurd are increasingly anomalies in the GOP.
Asked if he’s ever heard the president make a misleading statement, Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.) took a long pause before responding.
“What you’re trying to suggest — not so subtly, not so cleverly — is that the president is not to be trusted,” McClintock eventually responded. “Overall, I believe that he is.”
While that mindset is prevalent in the GOP, Democrats now control the House of Representatives. And they argue the voters who propelled them there aren’t getting used to the myths and contortions of reality that Trump pushes daily.
“The overwhelming majority of Americans have not normalized it,” Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) told VICE News while waiting in line with the California delegation to present Nancy Pelosi as the newly minted Speaker of the House. “Unfortunately, his base does appear to believe whatever he says, and I think he is now starting to disrespect them because of that. I think he’s come to the conclusion that he can tell them anything and they will believe it.”
Cover: President Donald Trump leads a meeting in the Cabinet Room at the White House January 02, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)