Trump, the master salesman, is trying to sell America a 'Democrat shutdown' — but he already owns it

Key Points
  • As the federal government careened toward a partial shutdown Friday night, Trump looked for someone to blame.
  • First Trump blamed Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., saying he should fight harder. Then Trump blamed Democrats for refusing to vote for $5 billion in funding for Trump's promised border wall.
  • But the president's goal of forcing Democrats to own the shutdown was complicated by the fact that Trump had already taken ownership of it himself.
President Trump promises ‘very long’ government shutdown over border wall funding
President Trump promises ‘very long’ government shutdown over border wall funding

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump, a salesman so good that he sold his personal brand all the way to the White House, may finally have met something he can't sell: "Democrat Shutdown." 

As the federal government careened toward a partial shutdown Friday night over Trump's demand for $5 billion to build a border wall, which does not have enough votes in the Senate to pass, Trump looked for someone to blame. But he quickly ran into trouble, not least because he'd already told the country he would take the blame himself.

"Senator Mitch McConnell should fight for the Wall and Border Security as hard as he fought for anything. He will need Democrat votes, but as shown in the House, good things happen. If enough Dems don't vote, it will be a Democrat Shutdown!" Trump tweeted on Friday morning.

A few minutes later, Trump tweeted, "Shutdown today if Democrats do not vote for Border Security!"

This message, that Democrats should be blamed for the government shutting down if they failed to approve funding for Trump's border wall, is not a new one for the president.

Trump said almost exactly the same thing 10 months ago, the last time the federal government was on the brink of a shutdown over the same border wall impasse.

"I'd love to see a shutdown if we don't get this stuff taken care of," Trump said at a White House meeting on the eve of a shutdown in February. "If we have to shut it down because the Democrats don't want safety, then shut it down."

That time the shutdown only lasted nine hours, so there wasn't very much blame to go around.

More importantly, Trump had been consistently blaming Democrats throughout the process, so it was more a case of two dueling messages — one coming from the White House and congressional Republicans, and one from the Democrats.

This time it's a different story. For one thing, a shutdown over the Christmas holiday would likely last for at least two weeks, owing to the congressional schedule, and would therefore be far more damaging to the economy and to the federal government.

Secondly, when Congress returns in January, Trump will no longer have the majority in both chambers. Democrats will take over the House on Jan. 3, while Republicans will add two seats to their current Senate majority.

If Trump doesn't solve the shutdown impasse before January, then Democrats will come sweeping into power, and take credit for solving a problem the president could not.

Most of all, however, Trump's goal of forcing Democrats to own the shutdown is complicated by the fact that Trump has already taken ownership of it himself. On national television, broadcast from the Oval Office.

Controversial walls in history and Trump's border wall
Controversial walls in history and Trump's border wall

"I am proud to shut down the government for border security," Trump told Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi last week, in front of TV cameras at the White House.

"Because the people of this country don't want criminals and people that have lots of problems and drugs pouring into our country. So I will take the mantle. I will be the one to shut it down. I'm not going to blame you for it," Trump continued, seemingly oblivious to the fact that he was taking ownership of a potentially costly and unpopular breakdown in federal government operations.

"The last time you shut it down, it didn't work," Trump said, presumably referring to the previous shutdown for which he had blamed Democrats from the start.

This time around, said Trump, "I will take the mantle of shutting down. And I'm going to shut it down for border security." Not surprisingly, Pelosi and Schumer were more than happy to let him.

Fast forward to Friday, with the shutdown just hours away, Trump appeared to finally have grasped the full measure of what owning a shutdown could mean for him and his party.

As Republicans in the Senate prepared to put a doomed spending bill to a vote shortly after noon, Trump issued a last-minute invitation for GOP senators to come to the White House for a meeting.

The fact that the president did not invite any Democrats to meet with him underscored the fact that Democrats are not in the driver's seat. If it were really Democrats who were forcing the shutdown, then presumably it would be Democrats who needed more convincing, and not the president's own party.

Still, Trump seemed committed to not letting the reality of the situation intrude on his branding and marketing campaign.

As Republicans prepared to make the 10-minute drive from Capitol Hill to the White House, Trump fired off a tweet. "The Democrats now own the shutdown!"