WASHINGTON – As the federal government hurtled toward a shutdown this last week, lawmakers played a now-familiar parlor game: What on Earth does President Trump want?
On Wednesday, the White House issued an official statement saying it supported a 30-day spending bill to avert a shutdown that included a six-year extension of the popular Children’s Health Insurance Program, or CHIP.
But Thursday dawned to see Trump declaring the opposite. “CHIP should be part of a long term solution, not a 30 Day, or short term, extension!” he exclaimed on Twitter.
There was so much head-scratching at the Capitol, they had to bring in a Zamboni to clear all the dandruff.
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As The Washington Post reported, Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the chamber’s No. 3 Republican, said he was “at a loss.”
And Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) gave voice to the grievance of many: “We don’t have a reliable partner at the White House to negotiate with.”
Perhaps that’s because the president is always negotiating with himself.
Exactly a week earlier, Trump had thrown the Capitol into similar chaos when he tweeted out criticism of a surveillance bill his administration supported. Later the same day, he rejected, in colorful fashion, a bipartisan immigration compromise he had said just two days earlier he would embrace. And this last week, on the same day lawmakers puzzled over the president’s actual position on the spending bill (the White House eventually returned to its original stance), Trump was contradicting his own chief of staff, John F. Kelly, who said Trump had “changed his attitude” and “evolved” on the nature of a border wall.
Trump replied that the wall “has never changed or evolved.”
The New Testament warns: “For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle?” Trump isn’t playing an uncertain trumpet so much as he is randomly switching between a vuvuzela and a slide whistle.
The president’s mixed messages, more than anything, are what brought the government to the brink of a shutdown. The issues involved – protections for the “dreamer” immigrants, the CHIP program and higher military spending – generally enjoy a broad bipartisan consensus.
A plaintive Sen. Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, essentially threw up his hands over immigration talks this last week: “I’m looking for something that President Trump supports, and he’s not yet indicated what measure he’s willing to sign. As soon as we figure out what he is for, then I will be convinced that we were not just spinning our wheels.”
His statement was a gentler way of expressing the quote attributed to (and contested by) former deputy chief of staff Katie Walsh in Michael Wolff’s book “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House” that working with Trump “was like trying to figure out what a child wants.”
The president began the immigration negotiations by telling lawmakers he would sign whatever compromise they worked out, as long as it had a border-security component and a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, component for the dreamers.
“My positions are going to be what the people in this room come up with,” Trump said, two days before rejecting such a bipartisan compromise.
If McConnell and Kelly have it rough, imagine the poor White House waiter taking Trump’s order:
“And what will you be having, sir?”
“My order is going to be what the people at this table come up with.”
“Well, sir, she’s having the steak – “
“I'll have that.”
“ – and he’s having the fish.”
“I'll have that.”
“Er, which one, sir?”
And pity the steward attempting to screen a film for the first family at the White House theater:
Ivanka Trump: “I want to see ‘The Greatest Showman.’”
The president: “I agree.”
Melania Trump: “Ooh, could we watch ‘Paddington 2'?”
The president: “Perfect.”
The Wall Street Journal’s Peter Nicholas and Rebecca Ballhaus this last week offered a “How-To Guide” for winning over a president for whom “no case is ever settled.” When Trump wanted to veto a bill containing sanctions against Russia, aides told him a veto override would make him look weak. He relented. When he was determined to crack down on trade, aides warned that such actions could hurt stock prices. He backed off. Aides have also employed stalling, “hoping he'll forget what he wanted done and move on to something else.”
My favorite is Defense Secretary Jim Mattis’s technique: “He says, ‘Your instincts are absolutely correct,' and then gets him (Trump) to do the exact opposite of what his instincts say.”
Maybe that’s why the president often seems to be wearing the same red tie. If he had to choose, he might not leave his bedroom all day.