Last Friday morning as the U.S. federal government shutdown entered its 35th day there were reports of mounting flight delays in New York City’s LaGuardia airport, as an unusual number of air traffic controllers had called in sick. If the government had been open, they would normally have received their paychecks on Friday, but for weeks their representatives and union leaders had warned that they were distracted at work — worried about how to put food on the table. Delays spread to other airports, including to the Washington DC area and to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, one of the world’s busiest.
The tension — and now danger — in the air was captured that morning by the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, who tweeted: “Stop endangering the safety, security and well-being of our nation. Re-open government now!”
Shortly after 2 p.m., Mr. Trump announced that the government would be re-opened for three weeks, until February 15, by which time, he said, the sides would have either agreed on a deal or he would declare a national emergency and build a wall on the Mexico border.
While we may never know exactly why Mr. Trump flipped and the moment it happened, unless he tells us (this assumes he knows it himself), one can posit that a combination of several factors in decreasing order of importance made him blink in this war of attrition.
The politics and more
First, and most importantly, the President saw that his plans were losing appeal to Republicans in Congress. Two Bills that were tested back to back on the floor of the Senate on Thursday last week failed to get the required 60 votes on the floor (where Republicans have a 53-47 majority). The first Bill had $5.7 billion in border wall funding and the second, which was Democrat backed, had no funding.
Just prior to the vote, Republican Senators reportedly met with U.S. Vice President Mike Pence to air their frustrations over the shutdown. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was reported to have said that the government should not have been closed in the first place — a change from his initial position of not wanting to forward any bills to the Senate floor that the President would veto.
Also on Thursday, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross did a television interview in which he said he did not “understand” why furloughed workers were heading to food banks. His comments, along with those of Mr. Trump’s daughter-in-law Lara Trump, who had also asked workers to “stay strong”, painted a picture of an administration increasingly removed from and insensitive to everyday realities faced by many American workers. These are also likely to be some of the same struggles faced by Mr. Trump’s core support base.
In addition to Congressional Republicans starting to tug at the rug under the President’s feet, were his falling approval ratings. This is likely to have been a second factor that caused the President to change tack.
There was an increase of about 5 points in the percentage who blamed Mr. Trump since the earliest polls after December 22 when the shutdown began, and a 2-point increase in the percentage who blame Congressional Democrats. Republicans on the Hill fare better — with a 3-point decrease in the percentage of those who blame them according to statistical analysis website fivethirtyeight.com.
Importantly, independent voters, a key component of Mr. Trump’s victory in 2016, were increasingly (by 7 percentage points) blaming him for the shutdown.
Clearly, the President had painted himself into a corner by Thursday evening last week. After the two Senate Bills failed, he made an offer for a prorated down-payment on the wall to keep the government open for three weeks; this was rejected by the Democrats.
Friday morning’s flight delays were a high profile event in a high profile city which also happened to be Mr. Trump’s hometown. Understaffed air traffic control was also putting people’s lives at risk: LaGuardia may have been the straw that broke the camel’s back.
It is unlikely the government will shut again on February 15 — that has proved to be an expensive exercise, costing the economy some $11 billion (as per the Congressional Budget Office) and approval ratings for some parties to the stand-off. Bills are also being introduced to fund the government in the event a deal is not reached.
Yet building a wall is one of Mr. Trump’s foundational promises to his constituents and so he is likely to do whatever he can to deliver on that.
Lynn Sweet of the Chicago Sun-Times told CNN on Sunday about a recent luncheon Ms. Pelosi had attended. According to Ms. Sweet, Ms. Pelosi, gesturing at flowers on the table said, “President Trump could look at these [planted along the border] and he would say, ‘This is a wall’.”
However Ms. Pelosi meant it, the statement provides a hint as to how the next three weeks may go.
Mr. Trump has already attempted to back away from the need to have a 2,000-mile physical wall, for instance by talking about a “smart wall” — a concept floated on the Hill by House Majority Whip (Democrat) James Clyburn. That Democrats are willing to spend on border security and surveillance cameras, drones, and funding for more border agents may be where the compromise is found. For that compromise to take place, Mr. Trump will have to convince himself and his core supporters that this is indeed the “wall” he promised. If he does not take that way out, he may resort to declaring a national emergency – and that is almost certain to be challenged in court, where he may or may not win. Time will tell how things pan out. If a week is a long time in politics then three weeks is an aeon.