WASHINGTON – Talks between President Donald Trump and congressional Democrats aimed at ending a partial government shutdown collapsed in acrimony and disarray Wednesday, with Democrats accusing the president of walking out and Trump calling the meeting “a total waste of time.”
The breakdown in talks left no end in sight for the shutdown on its 19th day. Trump continued to demand billions for his U.S.-Mexico border wall as a condition for reopening the government, a push Democrats have continually rejected.
During the White House meeting, Democrats once again pressed Trump to reopen most of the government. Trump refused, instead asking House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., whether she would agree to his wall.
When Pelosi said “no,” Trump exited the meeting in the White House situation room.
“Well, unfortunately, the president just got up and walked out,” said Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. “He asked Speaker Pelosi, ‘Will you agree to my wall?’ She said no. And he just got up and said, ‘Then we have nothing to discuss’ and he just walked out. Again, we saw a temper tantrum.”
Trump himself tweeted: “Just left a meeting with Chuck and Nancy, a total waste of time. I asked what is going to happen in 30 days if I quickly open things up, are you going to approve Border Security which includes a Wall or Steel Barrier? Nancy said, NO. I said bye-bye, nothing else works!”
Republican and Democratic lawmakers then took turns addressing reporters at the White House, trading blame and accusing one another of mischaracterizing the meeting and being intransigent.
It was not clear when, or if, negotiations will begin anew. On Saturday, the partial shutdown would become the longest continuous shutdown in U.S. history.
Some 800,000 federal workers are about to lose their first paycheck since being furloughed or working without guaranteed pay. Services have been curtailed across agencies from the IRS to the Agriculture Department to the National Park Service. Democratic lawmakers say the federal workers they represent are being forced to dig into retirement savings and take other steps to contend with the financial hardship.
The breakdown occurred shortly after the president dug in defiantly at a private meeting with Senate Republicans, attempting to rally GOP senators to his side even as he faced skepticism from a few lawmakers.
“There was no discussion of anything other than solidarity,” Trump told reporters after meeting with GOP senators amid the unbudging impasse.
But at the Capitol Hill meeting, there was not unanimity on Trump’s approach.
Moderate Sens. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Susan Collins, R-Maine, pleaded with Trump to reopen the government, according to lawmakers present.
Trump said that he was doing everything he could – but that he wouldn’t end the standoff by taking nothing, according to two people familiar with the exchange who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe the private discussion.
After the meeting, Murkowski told reporters: “I shared my support for the need for border security in the country and what we should do from a humanitarian perspective but a recognition that when the government is shut down there are consequences and people are starting to feel those consequences.”
But the discontent expressed by a handful of GOP lawmakers on both sides of the Capitol appeared unlikely to change the basic contours of the standoff between a president demanding a border wall and Democrats who refuse to give it to him.
Congressional GOP leaders and the bulk of rank-and-file lawmakers made clear that they support the president’s approach, even as federal services have been cut in some areas since the shutdown began Dec. 22.
“We’re all behind the president,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said as he left the meeting at Trump’s side.
When asked Wednesday how long he was willing to let the shutdown continue as he seeks money for a border wall, Trump replied: “Whatever it takes.”
Earlier in the day, House Republicans displayed striking unity in support of the president in a private meeting, participants said, as not a single lawmaker stood up to suggest that they support Democratic bills that would reopen much of the government but deny Trump new money for a border wall.
That unity will face a fresh test Wednesday afternoon, when House Democrats are scheduled to hold a vote to reopen the Treasury Department, legislation that would fund the IRS during the heart of tax season, when millions of people file tax returns.
Trump has said he would not sign any legislation to reopen the government unless it contains more than $5 billion in border funding for new walls and other security measures, a demand Democrats have repeatedly refused.
Behind closed doors, administration officials have been urging GOP lawmakers to hold the line on Trump’s demand that any legislation to reopen the government include wall money – even as the prolonged partial shutdown becomes more painful for their constituents.
There was little optimism at the Capitol that the stalemate would end anytime soon.
“Both sides are not reading the other side properly. I think both sides think that there’s greater weakness on the other side than there really is,” said Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., a leading House conservative who is close to Trump.
“The Democrats think that we’re about ready to fold – most of you were writing about that yesterday. I think Republicans think that Democrats are ready to fold, and neither of those two things are accurate by any stretch of the imagination,” Meadows said, adding: “I think you can’t cave. That’s what the Democrats don’t understand – it’s all or nothing.”
With border funding negotiations at an impasse, Trump has also threatened to circumvent lawmakers by declaring a national emergency to use Defense Department funds for the wall – a move that would activate executive powers and almost certainly face legal challenges.
“I may do that at some point,” Trump said after meeting with Senat Republicans, saying it could happen if he doesn’t get what he wants from “Chuck and Nancy” – his way of referring to Pelosi and Schumer.
“It’s a very bad political issue for the Democrats, that I can tell you,” Trump said, referring to the wall issue generally.
House Republicans embraced Trump’s depiction of a border crisis after their gathering Wednesday morning.
“What we heard today, all of our colleagues were talking about the crisis,” Rep. Andy Barr, R-Ky., said after emerging from the meeting. “I think there’s a lot of unity in our conference supporting the president.”
A House Republican, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal caucus dynamics, said: “No one thinks we’re losing, and therefore we continue.” Like others in the GOP caucus, this lawmaker said there is no end in sight to the partial government shutdown, and no plan to end it.
Democrats appear equally unmoved, insisting anew that they would never support Trump’s wall and suggesting that Republicans would crack amid mounting impacts from the government shutdown.
“We expect that with each passing day, additional Republicans in the House, as well as Senate Republicans, will publicly express their objection to keeping the government shut down,” said Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York, the Democrats’ conference chairman.
Trump continues to demand U.S. taxpayer dollars for the Mexico border wall he long claimed Mexico would pay for. And he pushed that demand again Wednesday in White House remarks ahead of his visit to the Capitol.
“They say it’s a medieval solution, a wall,” he said. “It’s true. It’s medieval because it worked then, and it works even better now.”
Wednesday afternoon’s House vote to reopen the Treasury Department and IRS comes after concerns surfaced that the IRS would not be issuing tax refunds during the shutdown. Since then, the IRS has reversed a past position and said it will continue to issue refunds during a government shutdown, but other services remained deterred.
Last week, seven Republicans broke ranks and supported a package of Democratic spending bills to reopen the government, but it’s unclear whether that number will grow in Wednesday afternoon’s vote.
Trump has made clear that he would not sign the Democrats’ legislation, and McConnell has stated repeatedly that he will not put anything on the floor that does not have the president’s support.
“Look, I think most of our members realize that these are nothing more than show votes,” said Rep. Drew Ferguson, R-Ga., chief deputy whip. “And I think that most members also realize that if they vote ‘yes’ on these bills and go home and tell their constituents that they voted to reopen the government, they would be pretty disingenuous about it, because we know these bills are going nowhere.”
The end of Trump’s Tuesday night speech appealed to voters to call their representatives and plead for support for border security and an end to the shutdown.
But several Democrats said Wednesday that such calls weren’t pouring in.
Rep. Susan Wild, D-Pa., who won a district that narrowly voted against Trump in 2016, said calls in her office were running about 70-30 against wall funding. That had not changed, she said, after the president urged supporters to call their members of Congress and demand the wall.
“We haven’t gotten any calls to that effect,” Wild said. “Most of the calls we’re getting are to the opposite effect.”
At a gathering of lawmakers representing the Washington region, home to the largest concentration of federal workers and contractors, several lawmakers said their offices are being flooded with calls, emails and letters from constituents panicking about how they will pay their bills.
Rep. Jennifer Wexton, D-Va., said one furloughed worker returned Christmas presents. Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., said another couple is considering taking money out of their retirement and kids’ college funds, despite financial penalty, to pay for basic needs.
But a number of Republicans said they were not hearing such concerns from their districts, which in many cases are not home to many federal workers.
“Most of us feel no pressure. In fact, it’s the opposite in our districts,” said one House Republican, speaking on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations.
“None of us have any federal employees,” the lawmaker said. “We’re dug in. I think the Democrats don’t realize this isn’t a political game we’re playing. We really believe in our souls that we have a responsibility to the American people to secure the border. And none of us are feeling pressure. Our districts want the wall.”
Nonetheless, the impacts of the shutdown remain concentrated to specific departments and agencies. About 75 percent of the government controlled by Congress was funded in earlier spending bills last year, including major departments such as the Pentagon and the Health and Human Services Department.
Shuttered departments and agencies include Treasury, IRS, Agriculture, Housing and Urban Development and the National Park Service.
The Washington Post’s Paul Kane, David Weigel, Karoun Demirjian and Jenna Portnoy contributed to this report.