By Justin Sink
The two men have an advantage within the White House, as they are telling a president who prizes confrontation and who often disparages undocumented immigrants largely what he wants to hear. More moderate voices, including Vice President Mike Pence and senior adviser Jared Kushner, do not appear to enjoy as much influence.
“He’s surrounded by the worst possible voices to get out of this mess, and he himself isn’t particularly inclined to negotiate,” Princeton University political historian Julian Zelizer said in an interview. “Ideologically they will push the president to hold out, and politically they offer nothing as a kind of skilled leader who could go to Capitol Hill and strike a deal.”
Talks ground to a halt last week after Trump stormed out of a White House meeting with congressional leaders and renewed threats to bypass Congress by declaring a national emergency to fund construction of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. The shutdown entered a record 24th day Monday, after some 800,000 federal workers missed their first paychecks last week.
Polls published Sunday by the Washington Post/ABC and by CNN show that by a wide margin, more Americans hold Trump accountable for the shutdown than Democrats. The president spent the weekend at the White House, where he complained repeatedly on Twitter that Democrats weren’t in Washington to negotiate with him and accused undocumented immigrants of committing crimes including child abuse.
Both Mulvaney and Miller have benefited from a post-election purge of White House aides who were seen as restraining influences on the president, including former Chief of Staff John Kelly. He said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times last month that his tenure should be judged by the things he convinced Trump not to do.
James Mattis, the former Defense secretary who left Jan. 1 after a disagreement over U.S. strategy in the Middle East, has told lawmakers the Pentagon budget should not be mined for money to build a border wall -- one possibility Trump is now considering. Former White House Counsel Don McGahn -- who told associates he stopped Trump from making legally and politically dangerous decisions, according to the New York Times-- also left the administration late last year.
Into the resulting power vacuum comes Mulvaney, and his hostility toward the federal government, and the nativist Miller.
Miller demonstrated his influence publicly in a media blitz during the crucial days before the shutdown. Republican leaders on Capitol Hill thought they had struck a deal to put off the fight over the wall for at least another month. But on Dec. 13, Miller appeared on Fox News to announce that the administration would take a stand to secure border wall funding -- and that his boss wouldn’t give in.
“We are going to win because Donald Trump is not backing down,” Miller said.
In a subsequent CBS News interview, Miller called the wall “a very fundamental issue” and set the stakes of the fight at no less than “whether the United States remains a sovereign country.”
It wasn’t the first time that Miller, a former Capitol Hill press aide, was able to disrupt an apparent deal among lawmakers. Senator Lindsey Graham complained last January that Miller undercut negotiations on a deal that would have provided wall funding in exchange for protecting immigrants brought to the country illegally as children from deportation.
“As long as Stephen Miller is in charge of negotiating immigration, we’re going nowhere,” Graham said at the time. The South Carolina Republican suggested Sunday on “Fox News Sunday” that Trump agree to temporarily re-open the government in order to try to resolve the border security dispute.
Miller is also widely credited for a public relations campaign that employed right-wing websites and talk radio to render a 2013 Senate immigration bill toxic among conservatives. Then-House Speaker John Boehner ultimately refused to take up the legislation, which passed the Senate with 68 votes.
“He believes in disrupting the status quo, which means not giving in,” Zelizer said.
Mulvaney has his own long history of encouraging hardball negotiating tactics, and he’s also downplayed the impact of a shutdown. But not all of his advice has been welcomed by the president. Axios reported on Sunday that Trump profanely rebuked Mulvaney in front of congressional leaders after he suggested compromising on wall funding during a Jan. 4 meeting, though it wasn’t clear whether the president was genuinely angry. A White House official told Axios the two men joked about the incident afterward.
As director of the Office of Management and Budget, Mulvaney told reporters that “a good shutdown” might be necessary, and that it could create the political climate “that fixes Washington, D.C. permanently.”
He has ordered federal agencies to minimize the impact of the shutdown, including steps such as keeping national parks open that critics say threaten long-term damage to the country’s resources. The White House’s moves to ensure that tax refunds are paid and food stamps are distributed even in the absence of congressional appropriations for the services have raised questions about whether the administration is breaking the law.
In Congress, Mulvaney aligned himself with a so-called “Shutdown Caucus" of House Republicans who said they’d be willing to let the government close rather than give ground in funding battles with former President Barack Obama. He voted against a 2015 government spending bill to prevent a shutdown, citing the legislation’s funding for Planned Parenthood.
Mulvaney spent much of the winter holiday with Trump at the White House and has been among the aides encouraging Trump to reject short-term funding bills that would reopen the Department of Homeland Security, Politico reported earlier this month. The acting chief of staff has said he’s been heavily involved in an effort to identify ways to fund a wall outside the congressional appropriations process, providing Trump reason to believe he may not need to compromise.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said Trump “is talking to a number of people on his team and regularly talking to a number of members of Congress.”
Trump advisers who support a more conciliatory approach have struggled to win the president’s ear. Vice President Mike Pence floated a compromise with Democrats that would have meant less than half as much money for the wall -- about $2.5 billion, according to congressional aides. But the president has repeatedly said since then that he’ll accept nothing less than $5.7 billion, showing that Democrats were right to insist that Pence secure his boss’s public endorsement before agreeing to a deal.
Kushner, who was also part of the talks with congressional leaders, has made clear his reservations about making an emergency declaration to circumvent Congress, according to a person familiar with the matter. Kushner has argued that the only circumstance under which an emergency declaration would make sense is if it’s clear the move would result in the construction of a border wall.
Ironically, Kushner is one of the few remaining members of the White House team to have shown he can win a bipartisan deal on Capitol Hill. Late last year, Kushner helped shepherd through an overhaul of federal criminal sentences despite opposition in both parties. Mulvaney and Miller, by contrast, have never demonstrated much interest in compromise, nor any feel for negotiation.
The acting chief of staff, for example, was among administration officials who publicly speculated that Democrats might be more willing to negotiate after Nancy Pelosi’s election as House speaker. It was a gambit perhaps informed by the Tea Party’s ability to undermine Republican leadership during Mulvaney’s time on Capitol Hill. But the move appeared to underestimate Pelosi’s strength among Democrats, and wound up simply lengthening a shutdown about to enter its fourth week.
— With assistance by Margaret Talev, and Erik Wasson