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Trump backs off national emergency with no end to shutdown in sight

White House

Over the weekend, White House aides and advisers said they were still unsure how the president planned to end the government shutdown.

Updated

President Donald Trump on Monday appeared to rule out — at least for now — declaring a national emergency to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, setting aside one of the White House’s leading options for ending the 24-day partial government shutdown.

“Now I have the absolute legal right to call it, but I’m not looking to do that,” Trump told reporters as he departed the White House.

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Trump had previously indicated he was in no rush to declare a national emergency and go around Congress to secure funds for the border wall, which he has long promised. But over the weekend, White House aides and advisers said they were still unsure how he planned to end the government shutdown.

Trump also on Monday shot down an effort by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a staunch ally of the White House, to re-open the government while lawmakers try to reach an immigration compromise. “I did reject it,” Trump said.

The president’s Monday comments are the latest indication that there is no end in sight to the shutdown, which is now the longest in U.S. history, running for 24 days. Both sides have dug in, with Trump demanding more than $ 5 billion for the wall and Democrats insisting that a wall is expensive, unnecessary and “immoral.” As of Monday morning, there were no signs of a pending compromise, even after many federal workers missed their first paycheck on Friday.

Top White House officials cautioned, however, that the emergency declaration was still on the table. Such a decision, they said, would be a “last resort” if Congress is unable to find a way out of the shutdown.

In the meantime, White House officials are discussing a strategy of trying to peel off moderate and centrist House Democrats — some who last week expressed unease with the continuation of the shutdown. There’s a recognition internally in the White House and GOP that Trump won’t get anything from Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, so White House officials are eyeing Democrats in the Blue Dog Coalition or the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus as potential compromisers, according to sources familiar with the White House’s thinking.

There’s talk of bringing such Democrats to the White House, though nothing was scheduled as of Monday morning. Some Trump officials hope to convince these members to support some wall money in exchange for a temporary reprieve for Dreamers — the very idea Trump dismissed just last week on his way to visit the southern border.

But it seems unlikely that Trump will be successful in winning support even from centrist Democrats. For one, he failed to divide Schumer and Pelosi when he attempted to pit them against one another. Democrats have mostly stayed unified.

Additionally, Democrats have witnessed Trump flip-flop on the idea of trading wall money for DACA so many times that they distrust his statements on the issue. Just last week, he undercut his bargaining position yet again when he told Vice President Mike Pence he would not support such a proposal.

While White House officials believe he is now once again interested in such a trade off, nobody knows how long that interest will remain.

Trump’s Plan B national emergency strategy has come under criticism from some conservatives, including key members of the House Freedom Caucus, who have warned the president that the move could set a dangerous precedent. Some Republicans have cautioned that future Democratic presidents could use it to force through progressive policies against the will of Congress.

Other Republicans, however, are eager to be done with the shutdown and acknowledge they have no leverage to force Democrats to the table. They privately hope Trump just declares an emergency to get them out of a shutdown fight they cannot win.

Trump and his top aides have been seriously weighing the prospect of declaring a national emergency for days, analyzing several possible funding sources for the wall, including disaster relief money.

Though the move would inevitably face legal challenges, some advisers close to the president made the case that the declaration would send a signal to his base that he’s serious about building the wall, while giving him cover to reopen the government without looking like he caved to Democrats.

Yet, despite recent polling showing that the majority of the public blames Trump and Republicans for the shutdown, some of the president’s advisers believe there is a political advantage to the current stalemate, according to two people familiar with the matter, who argued that the push for the wall is energizing the president’s base. The White House also sees an opportunity to attack Democrats for leaving Washington during the shutdown. A delegation of lawmakers went to see the musical “Hamilton” in Puerto Rico over the weekend, where they were attending a Congressional Hispanic Caucus PAC gathering.

“I’ve been here all weekend. A lot of the Democrats were in Puerto Rico celebrating something. I don’t know, maybe they’re celebrating the shutdown,” Trump told reporters.

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