Robert Mueller is circling, recessionary clouds are building, and Democrats are rising to power. For President Trump, this can mean only one thing: It’s time to fabricate a new crisis.
And that’s exactly what he’s doing.
Trump summoned Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi to the Oval Office on Tuesday for what was supposed to be a negotiating session about border security. Instead, he used them as props in an impromptu, 17-minute reality-TV show.
“Look, we have to have the wall,” Trump bellowed at the Democratic Senate and House leaders — seated awkwardly on couches — while the TV cameras rolled. “This is a national emergency. Drugs are pouring into our country. People with tremendous medical difficulty and medical problems are pouring in, and in many cases it’s contagious.”
Emergency! Drugs and contagion! And then, a threat: “If we don’t get what we want one way or the other, I will shut down the government, absolutely.” The president added: “I will be the one to shut it down. I’m not going to blame you for it. I will take the mantle of shutting down, and I’m going to shut it down for border security.”
Pelosi, who later said she felt like the “mom” in the room, appealed to a raving Trump to calm down, saying, “I don’t think we should have a debate in front of the press.” Said Pelosi (Calif.): “We’re coming in, in good faith, to negotiate with you about how we can keep the government open.”
But Trump had no such purpose in mind. He was practicing leadership as he knows it: deliberately throw everything into turmoil, see what emerges — and then claim victory regardless of outcome. He kept taunting the two Democrats, mocking their words to the cameras, scowling and interrupting. “You know, Nancy’s in a situation where it’s not easy for her to talk right now,” he told the cameras, referring to a Democratic leadership challenge in the House.
“Mr. President,” Pelosi replied icily, “please don’t characterize the strength that I bring to this meeting as the leader of the House Democrats, who just won a big victory.” Schumer (N.Y.), slouching on the couch opposite, added: “Elections have consequences, Mr. President.”
The meeting, thus sabotaged by Trump, devolved into taunts.
Vice President Pence, seated at Trump’s right, watched with the enthusiasm of a norovirus victim at a tennis match. Queasiness is called for, because Trump’s claim of ownership of a possible government shutdown was a debacle for congressional Republicans, who lost some 40 House seats in a midterm campaign fought over the president’s phony border crisis and who had been trying pre-emptively to label the confrontation the “Schumer shutdown.”
But the spectacle suited Trump’s purposes perfectly. As many have observed, his presidency has been one long series of self-generated crises, which he then resolves by more-or-less accepting a restored status quo. He is the arsonist who demands credit for dousing the fire.
This has happened with North Korea (which went from “fire and fury” to “love” with no concrete change in the country’s nuclear program); NATO (whose members reiterated their previous pledges after Trump’s harangue); the North American Free Trade Agreement (which was updated with minor amendments after Trump’s threat to tear it up) and variations of the same pattern over trade with Europe; deferred action for “dreamers”; family separations; the caravan; the ongoing China trade showdown; and, now, the shutdown threat.
The shutdown is a bit of a bluff. Even the current Republican majority in the House doesn’t have enough votes for Trump’s border wall.
Trump also undermined himself by claiming that, under current funding, which Democrats have approved, “tremendous amounts of wall have already been built,” and he read off statistics about lower illegal border traffic.
Um, so why the “crisis” and need for a shutdown?
Pelosi, returning to Capitol Hill, told colleagues privately that “this wall thing” is “like a manhood thing for him — as if manhood could ever be associated with him,” The Washington Post’s Mike DeBonis reported.
But there’s also something simple at work here. Because Trump’s crises are fabricated — whether over the future of NATO or the border wall — what constitutes a successful outcome is ambiguous. Trump can therefore declare victory no matter what happens. In the border “crisis,” that could mean a deal adding a small amount for security, which probably would have happened anyway.
The country will suffer yet another trauma, Republicans will take another political hit, the status quo will be maintained — and Trump will take credit.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.