The days of bipartisan dealmaking over plates of sesame crispy beef are over, for now at least, at the White House.
Nearly three months after Sen. Chuck Schumer and Rep. Nancy Pelosi left a Chinese food dinner at the White House gloating about an immigration deal, the Democratic leaders on Tuesday abruptly canceled a follow-up sit-down in response to a tweet warning that President Donald Trump was more interested in playing to his base than playing ball.
“Meeting with ‘Chuck and Nancy’ today about keeping government open and working,” Trump tweeted Tuesday morning. “Problem is they want illegal immigrants flooding into our Country unchecked, are weak on Crime and want to substantially RAISE Taxes. I don’t see a deal!”
Schumer and Pelosi’s response to the tweet — immediately pulling out of the meeting – was intended as a showy attempt at leveraging the Democratic votes the White House needs to keep the government open after Dec. 8. A year-end shutdown would further strain the frayed relationship between the White House and the Republican-led Congress.
And it was an example of Trump’s tweets — which chief of staff John Kelly has gone out of his way to note he does not seek to control — having an immediate impact on the legislative process and derailing a crucial meeting that had been weeks in the making.
Senior White House officials defended Trump’s Tuesday tweet, arguing that it was the president’s strategic attempt to reassure immigration hawks that this time, Democrats weren’t going to stroll in and extract promises from Trump without making some painful concessions themselves.
Others saw it as a potential overcorrection for a president who needs the support of Democrats in Congress to stave off a government shutdown.
“Donald Trump wasn’t just elected because of what he said to his base,” said Stu Loeser, a former Schumer aide. “He was also elected because he said he was a dealmaker who could fix Washington. Sitting alone at the table today, he looks like the emperor who can’t close.”
White House officials, however, insisted that the president had won a game of chicken by prompting the Democrats to bail at the last minute — and that their absence at the planned meeting made them look like they were the ones obstructing negotiations.
In September, Schumer and Pelosi left their Chinese dinner buoyed by a presidential promise to sign into law President Barack Obama’s program giving some young undocumented immigrants work permits, with no insistence on building a border wall.
But that verbal agreement infuriated conservatives, threatened to alienate Trump’s base, and forced administration officials to assure Republican leadership that the president had not, in fact, unilaterally agreed to a DACA fix without extracting any concessions in return.
One senior White House official characterized the president’s Tuesday tweet and comments on immigration as “a way to get ahead in messaging on what’s going to be a really difficult negotiation,” given that Democrats are “intransigent about a whole range of non-negotiable things.”
Trump highlighted the Democrats’ absence with an impromptu afternoon photo-op in the Roosevelt Room, where he was flanked by two empty leather chairs. “Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi did not show up for our meeting today,” Trump said. “I’m not really that surprised…They’re weak on illegal immigration. They want the illegal folks to come pouring into our border.”
Tuesday’s stalemate in negotiations came after weeks when the “Big Four” congressional leaders have been trying to schedule a meeting with the White House.
Skeptical that any White House surrogates — even Kelly — can truly channel the president’s thinking, Schumer and Pelosi have on multiple occasions refused to participate in any meeting or conference call that didn’t include the president himself, according to two people familiar with the negotiations.
Democrats agreed to a Nov. 17 call with Republican leadership, shortly after Trump returned from his Asia trip — but only if Trump himself would get on the line. The White House, however said that the president had yet to be read into the negotiations and was not prepared for the meeting, according to a person familiar with the negotiations.
Internally, this person said, the White House has been held up by a disagreement between budget director Mick Mulvaney, who favors big cuts to domestic spending, and Defense Secretary James Mattis, who wants to cut any deal that guarantees him money to fund the Pentagon.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Tuesday did not respond to a request for comment about the tension between Mulvaney and Mattis, two of the most respected administration officials.
Schumer and Pelosi, meanwhile, have insisted on including a DACA fix in the year-end spending bill, something the White House and Republicans leaders have rejected outright. “Absolutely not on the omnibus under no circumstances,” Arkansas Republican Sen. Tom Cotton, a close Trump ally, said earlier this month. It’s a position that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has backed as well.
But the Democratic leaders saw the president’s morning tweet as an opportunity to pressure McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan to make a deal. McConnell and Ryan, however, made clear Tuesday that in the middle of tax cut negotiations, the GOP was playing team ball.
“I’ve been in this position under a couple of previous presidents,” McConnell said from the half-empty Roosevelt Room. “I can’t recall ever turning down an opportunity to go down to the White House.”
Ryan added: “I just think it’s very regrettable that our Democratic colleagues and leadership chose to not participate because we have to negotiate these bills to get this work done for the people we represent and especially to help our military with these difficult situations we have.”
The three Republican leaders presented a rare united front. Any government shutdown that happened on his watch, Trump said from the Roosevelt Room, would ultimately not be his fault. “If that happens,” he told reporters, “I would absolutely blame the Democrats. If that happens, it’s going to be over illegals pouring into the country.”
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