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Trump Is Totally Lost on the Shutdown

Diverting disaster-relief money to build his wall would be hugely self-defeating.

Trump Is Totally Lost on the Shutdown

Diverting disaster-relief money to build his wall would be hugely self-defeating.

No way out.

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Pool/Getty Images

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Pool/Getty Images

Just how lost is the White House in trying to avoid a humiliating defeat for President Donald Trump in the shutdown showdown? According to Chad Pergram of Fox News, it’s trying to divert disaster-relief funding — intended to cover wildfires in California and hurricanes in Florida, Puerto Rico and Texas — to build Trump’s border wall.

It’s hard to convey how self-defeating this would be. The Republican leader in the House, who Trump desperately needs to keep on board, is from California. Diverting money from his constituents to fund the president’s obsession is perhaps the best way to drive him away. Then there’s the Electoral College. No, Puerto Rico doesn’t get to vote, and California is long gone for Republicans. But Florida was one of the closest states for Trump in 2016; losing its 29 electoral votes would mean he’d have virtually no margin of error in the next election. And while he won Texas by a wider margin, Representative Beto O’Rourke’s impressive run for Senate last year suggests that the Lone Star state may be getting more competitive.

Sure, the election is 22 months away, and few things a president could do at this point would directly affect what voters do then. But taking away disaster-relief money? We have no idea what kind of electoral effect that would have because no president has ever done anything that stupid. (Okay, I can think of one possible equivalent, President Jimmy Carter’s ill-fated grain embargo before the 1980 election. It’s hard to say how much that hurt him, but emulating Carter’s famous mistakes really isn’t something to be proud of.) Let’s just say that if there’s anything voters might remember that long and actually punish above and beyond their normal voting behavior it would be taking away tangible benefits from them in a time of need.

That’s all on top of an unpopular shutdown over an unpopular policy by an unpopular president. 

Now Trump is considering declaring a national emergency. Josh Chafetz correctly notes that doing so would be a retreat, not a victory. It would start a legal battle that would continue beyond 2020, leaving Trump able to blame the courts (rather than his own inept bargaining skills) for failing to achieve his most prominent campaign promise. Unfortunately for him, it has dawned on several Republicans that allowing a president to unilaterally declare a phony emergency any time he disagrees with Congress may not set a great precedent. So it’s not even clear that he can keep a united front willing to pretend the retreat is a glorious win.

There hasn’t been much polling specific to the shutdown, but surveys do show a gradual and continuing deterioration of Trump’s approval and disapproval numbers. Those numbers certainly won’t put any pressure on Democrats, who have been remarkably unified so far. And Trump made it easier for them to duck responsibility by framing the whole thing as his shutdown from the start. More to the point, it is his shutdown; Democrats would be happy to negotiate after reopening the government, and most Republicans probably would be too.

The funny thing is that, ego aside, it’s unlikely that Trump would actually damage himself if he just agreed to reopen the government while negotiations over the wall dragged on. Sure, anti-immigration folks wouldn’t like it. But most people would forget the whole thing in a few days. The longer this goes on, though, the more people will start suffering real personal harm. And most of them are going to hold Trump responsible. 

1. Andrew Rudalevige at the Monkey Cage on the history of declaring emergencies.

2. Michele Swers on the shutdown and party incentives.

3. Daniel Nichanian on voting reform in New Mexico.

4. Heather Hurlburt on bungling Syria policy.

5. Ed Kilgore on why Joe Biden is a weak nomination candidate.

6. And Adam Serwer on Trump as a toddler.

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    To contact the author of this story:
    Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

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    Timothy Lavin at tlavin1@bloomberg.net

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