President Trump had many Americans cheering on Tuesday as he blew past mini-lectures from Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer to hammer border security in a meeting in the White House.
Pelosi and Schumer both tried gambits that have usually worked with Republicans in the past (e.g., “We don’t want a government shutdown”). One gambit, however, is one they haven’t had to deploy before, or at least not within my memory. Pelosi used it more than once, and Schumer chimed in once as well: their statement was that “arguing” about the best way to achieve border security needed to be done off-camera. (A complete video record of the interlude is below. If all you’ve seen is clips, it’s very worthwhile.)
Perhaps there are some viewers who agree with that. But I doubt there are really very many. Visibility on exactly what the Democrats and the president don’t agree on is something we need more of, not less.
During the discussion, Schumer characterized Trump as having a tantrum. Trump took it in stride, not even reacting. Trump doesn’t actually look like someone having a tantrum – but what this exchange showed is what career politicians call “having a tantrum.” To many people, it just looks like Trump not giving in, and continuing to stick to his point.
The same is true when Schumer accuses the president of demanding to “get his way.” A whole lot of American eyes see that as Trump not giving in: i.e., to end-runs made with bait-and-switch pieties about “compromise” and bipartisanship. Such end-runs have been especially characteristic of the politics surrounding border security.
I saw two important leadership moments from Trump. These two points are about the dynamics of the human interaction and the rhetoric; on the policy topic of border security itself, I’d rather do without a wall, if it were at all possible.
The problem with not having a wall is that security then depends entirely on good-faith enforcement, and as administration after administration has shown, that’s where the breakdown is. Every single one of them will take advantage of the ambiguities they can mine from “good faith,” in order to keep letting people cross the border illegally in the hundreds of thousands every year.
That has got to stop. I’m a fan of robust legal immigration, but illegal migration is destructive in every way, undermining the rule of law, social cohesion and trust, and the very basis of our ideal of equality before the law. The purpose of letting people in illegally is to foster a class of people who can do a whole lot of illegal things that others could not get away with. Allowing our institutions to take out stakes in that perpetuated illegality will destroy America. Functional inequality cannot coexist with the ideal of equality; we proved that with the justly intolerable institution of slavery. We either end illegal migration, or it will end us.
So the first thing that matters, after decades of failure to enforce our laws and secure our border, is that our border be secured and our laws enforced. The first of Trump’s leadership moments was simply coming back to that, and refusing to be baited into following Pelosi and Schumer down dead-end streets.
Listen for that, and you’ll hear it. Pelosi tries to turn the discussion to a “gotcha” point about why Trump doesn’t call for a “show” vote in the current House; Trump goes back and forth a couple of times, and then just shakes his head – why should he play along with the political moment she’s trying to set up? – and says, “Border security!”
Pelosi tries to assume a lecturing tone about whether the discussion in front of the press should be contentious; Trump gives that even less attention, and says, “Border security!”
Schumer lobs his zingers about “tantrums,” Trump demanding to “get his way,” and the political perils of a government shutdown, and Trump says, “Border security!”
For those who think the whole episode was showboating on everyone’s part, well, you do you. As far as I can tell, Pelosi, Schumer, and Trump genuinely disagree on this issue and how to handle it, and they weren’t just trying to grandstand for the cameras. That’s what made Trump’s determination to focus on the priority of border security leadership.
It’s hard to overemphasize how important it is in leadership to not let your effort be sidetracked and jabbered into oblivion. The opponents of real border and law enforcement have been doing just that for many years. But Trump wasn’t going to participate in the kabuki dance that makes that possible. He had the CEO’s recognition of when to recalibrate and get the focus back. “Border security!”
The other leadership moment was Trump announcing that he’d be happy to shoulder the blame for a government shutdown, if that’s what it takes to get cooperation on genuinely effective border enforcement.
That’s the bigger, more focused leadership moment, and the one that will resonate the furthest. As other have pointed out, it neutralizes the whole dynamic, giving the opponents of border-wall funding (who aren’t all Democrats) no place to go with their threats.
Will Trump back up his words with deeds, if wall opponents in Congress try to call his bluff? (They would do that by presenting him with a continuing resolution that keeps the government funded without money for the wall, and basically daring him to not sign it.)
Good question. I don’t know the answer. If he does face them down, the political win would reverberate in a lot of realms, both domestic and foreign. They risk handing him a very big win, if they can’t override a veto.
Schumer and Pelosi were unhappy with the encounter afterward. I’ll let others do the in-depth analysis on that. The Hill has this account of Pelosi’s comments to the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee later on Tuesday:
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi mocked President Trump’s desire for border-wall funding hours after a tempestuous Oval Office meeting, calling it a “manhood thing” for him during a private meeting with Democrats.
“It’s like a manhood thing for him. As if manhood could ever be associated with him. This wall thing,” the California Democrat told members of the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee in a closed-door meeting after returning to the Capitol.
The confrontation [in the Oval Office] ended with no clear resolution in sight.
Vice President Pence was also in the room during the meeting, but largely stayed silent on the sidelines.
“It was so wild,” Pelosi described the meeting to her colleagues, according to sources inside the room. “It goes to show you: You get into a tinkle contest with a skunk, you get tinkle all over you.”