Donald Trump pauses during his speech in the Rose Garden

Despite his public hard-line stance, Trump has been quietly looking for a way out of the shutdown for weeks. | Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images

White House

The sudden erosion of support from Senate Republicans ultimately forced Trump’s hand.

President Donald Trump touted GOP unity for 33 days of a partial government shutdown. But by the 34th day, it was clearly gone — and so was the shutdown by the end of the 35th.

Senate Republicans had finally had it and were struggling to continue to defend the president’s position and heap blame on the Democrats. Perhaps no one illustrated that dynamic more than Sen. Rob Portman.

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The Ohio Republican, along with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), had spent more than two weeks pushing to reopen the government and then negotiate on border security, only to face repeated rejection by the president and Vice President Mike Pence. So when two votes came before the Senate this week, one on Trump’s plan, the other on a stopgap with no new guaranteed wall money, Portman nearly made a rare break with his party.

“I considered it, yes,” he said on Friday after the president finally caved on his position that the government would only reopen with a down payment on his wall.

Portman and most Republicans ultimately stuck with Trump after Pence’s pleas for unity. A sustained rebellion against Trump on Thursday, Portman argued, would mean the government “would not be open right now,“ because Trump would simply veto a Democrat-backed bill. “It would have been a real problem.”

In fact, despite his public hard-line stance, Trump has been quietly looking for a way out of the shutdown for weeks, according to White House aides. In recent days, the president has expressed frustration to allies about how the crisis was being covered on cable news, worrying that Democrats had won the upper hand, even before Friday’s dramatic airport delays.

But the erosion of Senate Republican support — fueled by the increasingly damaged economy and worsening poll numbers — perhaps more than anything is what pushed Trump to reverse course.

On Thursday night, after the pair of failed Senate votes and a tense caucus meeting that demonstrated there could be a large GOP jailbreak if the shutdown dragged on, Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) quietly agreed that it was time to find a way out.

“A lot of the conference wanted to end the shutdown by any means possible,” said a Republican senator stunned by Trump’s about-face. Trump isn’t going to get what he wants in the end, this lawmaker added: “Nothing is going to happen. This is surrender. I don’t see how it becomes anything. It’s just complete, total surrender.”

Trump’s public battle with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi also proved critical as he faced stubborn Democratic resistance no matter how he tried to split the party. Instead, he found himself on defense as Pelosi canceled his State of the Union address, infuriating the White House. Trump aides were convinced they had backed Pelosi into a corner, believing that dis-inviting the president would be seen as a petty breach of protocol.

They were surprised when Pelosi’s ultimate decision to cancel the speech wasn’t met with widespread derision. For many in the White House, it was a low point in an already miserable month. Trump’s approval ratings have dipped into the 30s as the shutdown has dragged on, in an ominous milestone for the president as he begins to gear up for his reelection campaign.

A House Democratic aide crowed that Pelosi “kept Trump off balance all this week” by asserting that unpaid federal workers shouldn’t protect the Capitol during the State of the Union and that he ultimately caved to reclaim his address.

But Trump’s advisers said the president was affected by the stories of federal workers missing paychecks and struggling to pay the bills. The president was particularly worried about federal law enforcement officials going without pay. Plus economists were beginning to lower their forecasts of growth because of the shutdown, another ding to a president who’s championed the stock market and humming economy at every turn.

“Every day gets harder … and I don’t mean just torqued off federal workers, which is enough,” said Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) of the shutdown’s impacts. “There’s no question that there’s a snowball, cascading effect on the economy.”

By Friday, the optics were terrible as government workers missed a second paycheck. TSA agents and other aviation workers were beginning to miss their shifts, resulting in widespread staffing shortages and delays. A senior administration official said Friday’s widespread East Coast airline delays wasn’t a factor in the decision to reopen the government because the decision was all but finalized on Thursday night during a talk with McConnell.

The White House also lacked a cohesive game plan and often appeared to seriously misjudge Democrats throughout the month-long stalemate. At times, Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, was pushing for a grand immigration compromise to end the shutdown, still riding high off the success of criminal justice reform legislation. Others in the White House believed that never had a chance of passing.

Some administration officials also convinced the president that they could end the shutdown by dividing Pelosi’s caucus by wooing moderate Democrats. That never happened either; only one senator — Joe Manchin of West Virginia — voted for Trump’s plan Thursday, and Pelosi largely kept her members in line.

The White House hasn’t given up hope of winning over at least a few Democrats. Senior administration officials insisted that rank-and-file Democrats had privately signaled to the White House they would be willing to compromise on border security once the government was open.

“Most have gone beyond their public comments in private,” one of the senior administration officials said, though the person refused to provide any evidence that was the case. Manchin and Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) have seemed warmer to a wall than others, but after that, the Democratic numbers get slim.

As Trump plotted his next steps, he sought buy-in from his outside conservative allies, concerned first and foremost that his base would rebel against any compromise. The White House organized several meetings and calls throughout the week with conservative leaders and immigration groups.

Aides worked late into Thursday night as they finalized the agreement. Trump was in regular contact with McConnell as he worked out the terms with Schumer, one of the White House officials said. Senior aides including Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Stephen Miller huddled with Trump, finalizing his speech before Trump emerged from the Oval Office, beginning his remarks more than 45 minutes late.

Before Trump made his announcement, McConnell offered a preview to Senate Republicans. The reaction was muted from the fraction of the caucus in attendance who had just endured the longest shutdown in U.S. history.

“There was no objection nor cheering,” said Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.). “It was just a general, ‘OK.’”

Republicans then recessed the Senate so they could all watch the president’s address on a TV in their lunch room. After Trump tanked a popular bill funding the government late last year, everyone wanted to hear his endorsement for themselves.

Later Friday, many Trump allies — and even some former high-ranking White House officials — were appalled that he had seemingly caved to Pelosi. But Trump’s move did distract, at least temporarily, from the blockbuster news of longtime Trump associate Roger Stone’s arrest. The network news channels all led with the shutdown deal instead of Stone.

As Trump came under fire from some immigration hardliners like Ann Coulter, some senior aides became defensive.

“The president could cure cancer and people would attack him,” another senior administration official said.

Trump himself tweeted Friday night, “I wish people would read or listen to my words on the Border Wall. 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!”

A White House official said Trump is serious about declaring a national emergency, adding that lawyers had reviewed the matter. But Congress will try to make headway first.

That will require Democrats to come off their position of no additional money for Trump’s border barrier. Portman was riding high on Friday for helping defuse the crisis and predicted the congressional conference committee shouldn’t be discounted and that whatever it produces will have money for more fencing: “The question is how much.”

As to whether he thought it was all worth it, the former White House budget director demurred.

“I’m not a fan of shutdowns, I don’t think they’re helpful,” he said. “I don’t think they provide leverage.”

And the clock was already ticking toward the next deadline as he sped away in a train back to his Capitol Hill office.

Gabriella Orr, Eliana Johnson and Heather Caygle contributed to this report.

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https://www.politico.com/story/2019/01/25/trump-goverment-shutdown-over-1128594

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