WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump’s first encounter with newly empowered congressional Democrats produced a striking Oval Office display that revealed how ill-prepared he is for the biggest political challenge of his presidency.
There was Trump, sitting between two seasoned legislators, repeating his demands for border wall funds, while House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer first politely, then forcefully, told him no, with the force of their combined 60-plus years in Congress.
Tuesday’s televised bout offered a tantalizing preview of divided government in Trump’s Washington. The bravado and playground taunts that are the president’s signature weapons of choice ran squarely up against the Democratic resistance, subpoenas and gridlock of a soon-to-be empowered Congress. After two years of unified Republican control in Washington, Trump learned the hard way that as challenging as his first two years in office have been, the next will be even more trying.
It marked the beginning of what may be an early comeuppance after Trump’s post-election spin that Democratic control of the House would turn out to be smoother for him than having a slim GOP majority. When Trump invited reporters and cameras into his private meeting with Pelosi and Schumer, Democrats played on his turf: Taunting, goading and lecturing the president, Pelosi and Schumer made clear they intend to use their seats at the table to give the president a taste of what he’s been serving since taking office.
“Elections have consequences, Mr. President,” Schumer said pointedly after Trump was reminded that Democrats took control of the House.
It was a new reality that Trump, still smarting from his party’s losses on Nov. 6, appeared to be struggling to internalize as his demands for border wall funds fell flat with those he’ll need as partners to deliver on his priorities.
Pelosi told reporters later at the Capitol that she “didn’t want to contradict the president again and again in front of the public.” But, she said, “If that’s what he wants, then that’s what we have to do.”
The freewheeling meeting was hardly designed to score a deal on keeping key government agencies open past Dec. 21. The president admitted as much. For Trump, it was an opportunity to lay his case before the American people, as the Democrats first urged Trump to negotiate privately, and then treated him to a public needling.
From the start, the differences were clear. Pelosi told the president the American people expected the government to stay open, adding: “You should not have a Trump shutdown.”
“Did you say ‘Trump?'” the president asked.
That set the stage for what came next: Trump and Pelosi haggling over vote counts, along the way highlighting Trump’s long-term disengagement from the legislative process. He and Schumer sparred over politics.
Rather than reach toward compromise, Trump tried to force Democrats to accept the border wall on his terms. But bolstered by their electoral wins, Democrats weren’t having it.
Video by PBS NewsHour
The encounter only reinforced the fears of White House aides and some of Trump’s congressional allies that he is not only unprepared for dealmaking in a divided Washington but also for handling the investigations of Trump and his administration that Democrats are sure to undertake.
When Trump said he’d be “proud” to shut down the government over border security, it became a soundbite for the ages.
Later, Pelosi said Trump talked so much about the border wall, “it’s like a manhood thing for him.” That comment was revealed on condition of anonymity by an aide who was in the room but was not authorized to speak publicly. Pelosi also said Trump insisted Mexico would pay for the wall.
Democrats have grown almost exasperated working with Trump who, after nearly two years in office, still doesn’t seem to understand Congress and can’t always stick to his decisions and close the deal.
“Dealmaker, negotiator, whatever. That wasn’t my experience with him,” said Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, who tried and failed to cut an immigration deal with Trump last year.
“We’ve got to bring him into the world of congressional reality,” Durbin said. “And sometimes I wonder if he has anyone around him who does that.”
White House officials offered little commentary on the remarkable Oval Office confrontation beyond admonishing Democrats for trying to move the proceedings out of public view. They privately questioned whether Trump understood the gravity of the new legislative era. But Trump, at least publicly, expressed confidence in the exchange.
Trump has long believed that his tough immigration rhetoric was responsible for his 2016 campaign victory, and he brandished it again for the 2018 midterms to more mixed success. According to AP VoteCast, more voters this year opposed the border wall than supported it.
“If we close the country, I will take it because we’re closing it down for border security and I think I win that every single time,” Trump said later. He insisted the meeting with Pelosi and Schumer was “very friendly.”
Democrats, too, suggested the meeting ended well enough, noting that Trump neither accepted nor rejected their offer to fund the government with up to $1.6 billion for border security, rather than the $5 billion he’s been demanding for the wall.
But Democrats showed they are comfortable, as Pelosi often says, standing their ground “like a rock” — even if the day of name-calling and rancor provided a curtain raiser for the new Congress. Democrats seemed to indicate they know what they’re in for and may emerge tarnished.
As Pelosi said, according to the aide, “It goes to show you: You get into a tickle contest with a skunk, you get tinkle all over you.”