In a combative Oval Office meeting that previewed what a divided government may look like, President Trump sparred Tuesday with Democratic leaders and said he’d be “proud” to shut down the government later this month unless Congress provides taxpayer money to build his long-promised border wall with Mexico.
The standoff with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer was all the more extraordinary because much of it occurred in front of reporters.
“We have to have a wall. … I will take the mantle of shutting it down. I will shut it down for border security,” Trump said during the encounter, in which the leaders exchanged political barbs with cameras rolling.
The meeting came at the start of what was supposed to be a negotiation over how to fund a portion of the government by the Dec. 21 shutdown deadline, and whether the border wall money Trump wants would be included as part of that package.
“We have solutions that will pass the House and Senate right now and will not shut down the government,” Schumer said, “and that's what we're urging you to do — not threaten to shut down the government because you can't get your way.”
The three leaders chastised, corrected and interrupted one another repeatedly. The meeting, which ended not long after the press was escorted away, did not resolve the standoff.
Democrats, who will take over control of the House next month, have offered $1.6 billion for border security generally, but Trump is demanding $5 billion for a wall. During the campaign, Trump had promised Mexico would pay for the wall.
The tense exchange could make a holiday shutdown — in which a small portion of government operations would cease — more likely. Trump fully accepted political responsibility for a shutdown, giving Democrats little reason to give in to his demands or help provide votes to avoid one.
Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Pelosi (D-San Francisco) repeatedly made the case against shutting down the government, saying it would only hurt American workers and the economy. Vice President Mike Pence sat in on the meeting but did not say a word while reporters were in the room. Shortly after the meeting, he huddled with Senate Republicans on Capitol Hill, where he backed up Trump’s message but did not share specifics about a path forward, according to lawmakers in the room.
At several points in the White House meeting, Pelosi and Schumer tried to cut off the public theatrics and suggested continuing the conversation in private. Instead, Trump allowed cameras to stay in the room for 15 minutes. “It’s called transparency,” he said.
It was the latest in a string of public negotiating sessions in front of television cameras that Trump seems to enjoy and thrive on.
Trump and Pelosi bickered over whether the president even had the support of his own party to use taxpayer funds for a wall.
“If I needed the votes for the wall in the House, I would have them in one session. It would be done,” Trump said.
Pelosi responded confidently that he doesn’t have the support in the House. “Well, then go do it. Go do it. … You will not win.”
For Pelosi, the opportunity to stand up to Trump on live television may not have come at a better time. She is trying to gather the Democratic votes she needs to regain the speaker’s gavel in January and her strongest argument is that she is experienced enough to go toe-to-toe with the president.
Afterward, Pelosi said Trump was obsessed with the wall and offered her interpretation of why, in a deeply personal dig that the president might have appreciated if it weren’t about him.
“It’s like a manhood thing for him — as if manhood could ever be associated with him,” Pelosi told fellow Democrats in a closed-door meeting after the Oval Office encounter, according to an aide in the room.
Even as a seasoned House leader, Pelosi said she found the White House meeting unusual.
“The press is all there! Chuck is really shouting out. I was trying to be the mom,” Pelosi told her fellow Democrats. “I can’t explain it to you. It was so wild. It goes to show you: You get into a tinkle contest with a skunk, you get tinkle all over you.’”
Nevertheless, she said, Democrats came away with the upper hand.
“The fact is, we did get him to say, to fully own that the shutdown was his,” she said. “That was an accomplishment.”
One administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Trump appeared upset after leaving the meeting, flicking a folder and sending its papers flying out. Later in the day, Trump described the meeting with Democrats as “very friendly” and said he didn’t mind “owning that issue.”
Yet even as Trump seemed to embrace a shutdown, he has also been preparing his conservative base for the possibility that he won’t get funding for the wall.
Earlier Tuesday, the president tweeted that the military would build the wall if Democrats didn’t agree to fund it. He also claimed falsely that much of the wall he promised has already been built.
The spending bill marks the last opportunity Trump would have to get his border wall approved while Republicans control both the House and Senate. Republican leaders on Capitol Hill have largely deferred to Trump on the issue, saying the president needs to decide whether he is willing to shut down the government to get his top campaign promise through Congress. Most Republicans on Capitol Hill would like to avoid a shutdown, which typically hurts the party in control of Congress.
“I hope that’s not where we end up,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.) said a shutdown may be more likely as a result of the standoff. “I think it is a step in that direction,” Shelby said. “We’ve got another eight or 10 days. We might come together and we might not.”
But at least some Republicans seem ready to back up Trump.
“He needs to dig in, not give in,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told reporters after the meeting. He said the president should challenge Democrats’ resistance to a wall. “I’ve had enough of it. Take it on. Stare it down. See what happens.”
Schumer and Pelosi previously said they will not provide the votes to fund the border wall, particularly after Democrats flipped 40 seats in the House in last month’s midterm elections. Any legislation would require some Democratic support to get through the Senate.
Democrats have put two offers on the table, neither of which has wall funding: $1.6 billion in “fencing” along the southern border or a continuation of last year’s spending levels for the Department of Homeland Security, about $1.3 billion.
Inside the West Wing, the meeting's conclusion set off a chaotic scramble as aides switched into what one staffer, speaking on the condition of anonymity, called "damage-control mode."
"The aftermath of that meeting was not pretty," the person said.
With Pelosi and Schumer driving home their main takeaway from the meeting with reporters positioned just outside the doors to the West Wing, the White House communications shop was crafting a statement blaming Democrats for the current stalemate that could cause a shutdown.
"President Trump was grateful for the opportunity to let the press into the meeting so that the American people can see firsthand that while Republicans are fighting to protect our border, Democrats are fighting to protect illegal immigrants," the White House said in a statement.
Los Angeles Times staff writer Eli Stokols contributed to this report.