Washington (AFP) – Donald Trump loves to make the pistol gesture when pronouncing his “You’re fired” catchphrase. But in the tussle with Democrats over the longest US government shutdown in history, the legendary dealmaker may have shot himself in the foot.
So much of the president’s brand is linked to the aura of decisiveness he embodied as star of the long-running “Apprentice” television show that it’s hard for many to imagine him as anything less than a hardball businessman.
However, the shutdown, which Trump finally ended Friday, after 35 days, brought home that the White House is not the same as a real estate magnate’s boardroom, let alone a reality TV set.
With growing numbers of unpaid federal employees in financial trouble, airports clogging up and even the Secret Service agents guarding the White House missing a second paycheck, Americans were crying out for leadership.
Instead, what they got for five weeks from both Trump and his Democratic opponents were playground-level arguments and political drift.
Finally Trump, who’d vowed not to “cave,” did just that, agreeing to reopen government for three weeks while dropping his demand for immediate funding of a controversial US-Mexico border wall.
It was the rarest of things for a man who has often boasted of his ruthlessness and ego: a personal retreat for the greater good.
– Siege mentality –
The big climbdown capped a rough day.
At dawn on Friday, FBI agents arrested former associate Roger Stone in the alleged Trump-Russia collusion probe, boosting the sensation of a White House under siege. Stone is the sixth person with ties to Trump to be charged in special prosecutor Robert Mueller’s huge investigation.
Trump spokeswoman Sarah Sanders tried to project coolness, dismissing Stone’s arrest as “nothing to do with the president and certainly nothing to do with the White House.”
Stone’s fate — he faces seven counts including witness tampering, obstruction of justice — is “not something that affects us in this building,” Sanders said.
But a short time later, it became clear that someone in the building wasn’t feeling quite so blase: her boss.
“Greatest Witch Hunt in the History of our Country! NO COLLUSION! Border Coyotes, Drug Dealers and Human Traffickers are treated better,” Trump tweeted.
– ‘Screw you, screw them’ –
The brash New Yorker has made a career of projecting strength and self-confidence.
That especially applies to his negotiating prowess.
“My style of deal-making is quite simple and straightforward. I aim very high, and then I just keep pushing and pushing and pushing to get what I’m after,” he said in “The Art of the Deal” — the ghost-written autobiography that did much to create that image of the ultimate American tycoon.
So when he refused to fund swaths of the government back in December, Trump thought his show of executive power would force Congress to submit to his request for $5.7 billion in funding for US-Mexico border wall extensions — a central promise in his surprise 2016 election.
However, Trump, a newcomer to politics, apparently hadn’t reckoned on having to deal with a lower house of Congress which from January came under control of the Democrats.
By contrast, Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi, his main antagonist, has decades of experience at shutdown politics and that showed throughout. As Pelosi’s own daughter told CNN: “She’ll cut your head off and you won’t even know you’re bleeding.”
After losing round one, Trump promises a second round in three weeks, should he still not have got his wall funding. That could mean another government shutdown or invoking emergency powers to get wall funding without congressional approval.
The senior Democrat in the Senate, Chuck Schumer, cautioned Trump against further conflict. “Hopefully now the president has learned his lesson,” he said.
But Trump, possibly stung by headlines that screamed of his retreat, offered a rebuttal, repeating a threat to shut the government again.
“This was in no way a concession,” Trump tweeted.
“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!”
And as Trump says in “Think BIG and Kick Ass in Business and Life,” another of the many books under his name:
“My motto is: Always get even. When somebody screws you, screw them back in spades.”