If the government shuts down on Friday, President Donald Trump’s television habits may be partly to blame, according to two White House aides.
The president began the day on Thursday by blasting out a tweet that threatened to derail a GOP legislative package designed to keep the government open, arguing that the Children’s Health Insurance Program, known by its acronym, CHIP, “should be part of a long-term solution, not a 30-day, or short-term, extension.” But that is precisely the package House Speaker Paul Ryan was trying to persuade skeptical Republicans to agree to in order to keep the government open.
The Ryan deal had been discussed at length on “Fox & Friends,” the president’s favorite morning television program, in the hour before he sent the missive — and the aides immediately suspected that something on the program had prompted it. They also pointed to Trump’s frustration over the comments made by his chief of staff, John Kelly, in a Fox News interview Wednesday evening, to explain his seemingly random eruption.
The president, with his tweet, increased the likelihood of a government shutdown with the push of a button, sending Republican congressional leaders, already scrambling for votes, into chaos, and White House staff careening to correct the record.
Within hours, a spokesman for the president, Raj Shah, said that Trump does, in fact, support a short-term resolution to fund the government, but not before putting the House vote at risk and pushing Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to begin making contingency plans for a shutdown.
The episode is perhaps the most dramatic demonstration yet of how Trump’s glandular method of governance can have tangible legislative consequences — in this case, pushing the government closer to a shutdown for which his own party is likely to shoulder the blame.
Republicans expressed deep frustration with the situation. “The president’s role has been extraordinarily confusing, I’ll leave it at that,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who had indicated she would reluctantly support a short-term deal to keep the government open.
The president awoke on Thursday spoiling for a fight, according to four White House aides and outside advisers, seething over remarks made by Kelly, who told Fox News’ Bret Baier on Wednesday evening that the president was not “fully informed” when he promised to build a wall spanning the entire southern border.
Kelly’s comments were discussed ad nauseam on “Fox and Friends” Thursday morning. “It sounded to me like Gen. Kelly was compromising a little bit on the wall last night in the interview with Bret Baier, getting wobbly on the wall, saying ‘I don’t need brick and mortar all the way through, we can do different barriers,’” said host Brian Kilmeade.
Though it was not clear to aides precisely what triggered the president’s comment on CHIP, the rest of his morning tweets tracked carefully with the show, and they agreed that something was said during the broadcast that set him off.
Moments after Kilmeade’s remark about Kelly, for example, the president took to Twitter and delivered an apparent response. “We need the Wall for the safety and security of our country. We need the Wall to help stop the massive inflow of drugs from Mexico, now rated the number one most dangerous country in the world. If there is no Wall, there is no Deal!”
The Fox hosts discussed the impending shutdown at length, and the president appears to have come to the mistaken understanding that the short-term bill would fund CHIP for only 30 days, rather than the agreed-upon six years.
“The Democrats will be forced to vote for a CHIP bill, which is insurance for kids, health insurance … I think we’re gonna get Republicans in the House to stand together and pop that bill over to the Senate and put some pressure on Senate Democrats to say, you know, yes to keep the government open or do they want to shut it down and take health insurance away from kids all on behalf of illegal immigrants,” Rep. Sean Duffy (R-Wis.) told the hosts about 50 minutes before the president’s tweet.
Democrats, whom Republicans were trying to pressure into supporting a stopgap measure to fund the government, were incredulous over the president’s apparent ignorance about legislative details.
“He didn’t realize that it’s a six-year reauthorization? I mean, think about the exchange we’re having now!” Sen. Chris Coons (D-Conn.) said. “How are we supposed to negotiate responsibly?”
By Thursday afternoon, the prospect of a shutdown, which would fall on the first anniversary of Trump’s inauguration, appeared to be rising. A week ago, efforts to negotiate a two-year budget deal that would have protected undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children seemed to be progressing until the emergence of a report that Trump had referred to certain nations as “shithole” or “shithouse” countries seemed to derail them.
Republicans were trying to use the CHIP measure as an incentive for Democrats to support a short-term bill before the president’s tweet injected confusion into their own ranks.
Now, some are saying they need a clarity and steadiness from the White House that they simply aren’t finding. By and large, lawmakers have expressed frustration that the president has demonstrated his ability — and his willingness — to undermine any legislative deal regardless of the promises that have been delivered by members of his staff.
“Presidential leadership is important in resolving all issues, but especially big ones. This is a big issue. Clear direction from the White House has value,” said Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.). Asked if the White House has offered that, he said: “No. I think it’s still to be determined what this president would sign.”
“Certainty is always better than chaos and uncertainty” Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) said of Trump’s comments. Asked if Trump is being chaotic and uncertain, Shelby replied with a grin: “I didn’t say that.”
It is the second time in a week that a tweet from the president has threatened to undermine Republican-backed legislation on Capitol Hill and send GOP leaders and congressional aides into a frenzy.
On Friday, as Republicans were preparing to vote on legislation to reauthorize the controversial Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the president tweeted, “This is the act that may have been used, with the help of the discredited and phony Dossier, to so badly surveil and abuse the Trump Campaign by the previous administration and others?”
After a conversation with Kelly and a call from House Speaker Paul Ryan, the president added, “With that being said, I have personally directed the fix to the unmasking process since taking office and today’s vote is about foreign surveillance of foreign bad guys on foreign land. We need it! Get smart!”
Later Thursday morning, Trump also appeared to respond through his Twitter account to comments from former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who joined “Fox and Friends” just after 7:30 a.m.
Though Gingrich said he considered a shutdown unlikely, Gingrich argued that, should one occur, it would put Democrats in a jam. “Democrats are proving right now they have no regard for the risks of young Americans in uniform and it is a totally destructive way to run the Pentagon,” he said, a reference to GOP concerns about how a shutdown would affect military preparedness.
Fifteen minutes later, Trump tweeted, “A government shutdown would be devastating to our military … something the Dems care very little about.”