Trump: 'I don't do anything ... just for political gain'
For the last two years, congressional Republicans have persuaded President Donald Trump to delay the fight to fund his border wall, convincing him he would pay a steep political price for such a high-stakes legislative brawl.
Trump is done waiting.
Nine days ahead of a deadline that could trigger a partial government shutdown, with no solution in sight, the president told POLITICO in a Tuesday Oval Office interview that he is unflinchingly firm Congress must send him a bill approving $5 billion for his wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, and said he would "totally be willing" to shut down the government if he doesn't get it. Democratic leaders — including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) — have said they would approve $1.6 billion for the wall, placing the two sides billions of dollars apart as the lame-duck session begins.
Raising the stakes even higher for the GOP, Trump said the $5 billion would only cover the physical border. "The number is larger for border security," he said.
Sitting at the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office, with a stack of papers, magazines and a soda at the ready, Trump said he now believes that a pitched battle over the border is a "total winner" politically for his party, and a loser for Democrats.
"I don't do anything ... just for political gain," Trump said. "But I will tell you, politically speaking, that issue is a total winner. People look at the border, they look at the rush to the police, they look at the rock throwers and really hurting three people, three very brave border patrol folks -- I think that it's a tremendous issue, but much more importantly, is really needed. So we have to have border security."
Trump was referring to a confrontation at the southern border on Sunday in which some migrants threw rocks at U.S. Border Patrol officers, although his claim that three were seriously hurt is unsubstantiated.
His insistence on $5 billion for the wall — "I am firm," he said — does suggest a real risk of a partial government shutdown. Congress must pass seven appropriations bills by next Friday, or risk a lapse of funding that would interrupt operations at the Department of Homeland Security, Justice Department, State Department and other federal agencies. Democrats will take control over a slice of Washington in 37 days, the first time they've controlled any lever of power in Trump's Washington.
But Trump has made similar threats before, only to abandon his negotiating red lines.
His brinksmanship was also a contrast to his suggestion in a Tuesday interview with the Washington Post that he might turn to a backup plan, involving more physical security at the U.S.-Mexico border, if Congress rejects his funding demands.
Congress has a long to-do list for the next month, including the farm bill, the Violence Against Women Act and government funding.
House Republican leaders met with the president at the White House Tuesday afternoon, but their plan to fund the wall was not immediately clear. GOP sources say they believe Democrats will want to strike a deal so they start 2019 with a fresh spending slate. But with Nancy Pelosi battling for the speakership, and many Democrats in no mood for compromise, an accord seems far off.
House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) told reporters at the White House after the meeting that "the president has been very clear that he needs $5 billion to properly secure the border. We need to be there for him and make sure this gets signed."
Trump also signaled he was in no mood to strike a large-scale immigration deal with Democrats. Asked if he was open to a compromise to legalize so-called Dreamers — undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children — the president said he would prefer to wait for court challenges to wrap up. He predicted the legality of the Obama-era program to defer deportations would be decided by the Supreme Court, which the Justice Department recently said it would soon petition for a ruling.
If the court determined DACA is illegal, Trump said he'd be willing to make a deal on "border security and everything else."
"I have big heart for DACA," he said. "I want to be able to keep them. But if the court rules properly, there will be no problem with DACA and we'll get everything solved. If the court rules in favor of Obama having that right, it's going to be a disaster because we will get nothing, we will get nothing done."