President Donald Trump is threatening to shut down the government — again — this time because he thinks it would be politically advantageous for him.
“I would do it because I think it’s a great political issue,” Trump told reporters Friday, saying the people he watches on TV — Sean Hannity, Mark Levin, and Rush Limbaugh — all think shutting down the government is the “greatest thing you can do.”
The government runs out of money at the end of September, a deadline congressional Republicans are eager to meet in order to avoid any additional drama before the November elections. While negotiations are far along on most spending bills, there’s an expectation that Congress will likely have to pass an extension and fund the government at status quo for certain federal agencies like the Department of Homeland Security. But that’s been made all the more complicated by Trump, who nearly vetoed a spending package earlier this year because it didn’t fund his border wall, and is now threatening to do so again with even more sweeping hardline immigration demands.
Trump appears to understand that concern from within his own party, but he doesn’t seem to be letting that get in the way of his own political ambitions.
“There are a lot of politicians that I like and respect and are with me all the way that would rather not do it because they have races, they’re doing well, they’re up,” Trump said Friday. “The way they look at it, might be good, might be bad.”
With just over a week of working days left in the legislative calendar, the Senate and House are meeting in conference to hammer out any major sticking points with a final spending bill.
Congressional leaders have been pleading with Trump to sign whatever spending bill they put on his desk. Even some of Trump’s allies in Congress, like Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC), who has a close personal relationship with the president, told reporters this week that a shutdown wouldn’t be happening.
“If you have a shutdown clock, you should put it on pause,” he said. It might be time to run the clock again.
The political benefits of shutting down the government are not clear
It’s clear that the political calculus of a government shutdown has shifted over time from complete disaster to possible political strategy. And while Republican and Democratic leaders in Congress have been rightfully wary of letting it get to this point, Trump seems willing to go that far.
Government shutdowns do matter; while they don’t usually result in senior citizens going without their Social Security checks or cease military activity, they still impact vast swaths of government functions. The Office of Management and Budget estimated that the 2013 shutdown resulted in 120,000 fewer jobs and cut economic growth by 0.2 to 0.6 percent in the last quarter of that year.
In January, when the government shut down for the first time this year, 84 percent of Americans found it mostly unnecessary, according to a Quinnipiac University National poll. Across party lines, 89 percent of Republicans and 78 percent of Democrats said it wasn’t needed.
And it’s possible Trump will get the blame; in the 1995 shutdown, Republicans’ approval ratings dropped, as did those of then-President Bill Clinton. But in the 2013 midterms, while Republicans in Congress again got the blame, President Barack Obama’s approval ratings remained relatively unchanged.
In this case, if Trump does choose to shut down the government, it would come within months of a contentious election, where Democrats are looking to regain the majority in both the House and the Senate.
Trump has been using the spending bill to make difficult demands in Congress
This latest shutdown threat comes in direct contradiction to what Trump has been saying over the past few weeks: that he is hesitant to shut down the government over fears that it could hurt Republicans’ electoral chances in the 2018 midterms.
Just last week, the president said he “most likely” wouldn’t shut down the government over a lack of border wall funding during a live Fox News interview at a rally in Montana, precisely because he feared it could hurt Republicans’ electoral chances in 2018.
“If it was up to me, I’d shut down [the] government over border security,” Trump told Fox News host Pete Hegseth. “And I guess when you get right down to it, it is up to me, but I don’t want to do anything to hurt us or potentially hurt us.”
Border security and wall funding has been Trump’s signature issue from day one.
The Senate crafted its $857 billion bipartisan spending bill with national security and the military specifically in mind. Under the Senate plan, the Pentagon would get a $20.4 billion increase, including a 2.6 percent pay raise for current members of the military and funding for more than 6,000 new troops. Domestic spending for the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Education would also get funding boosts.
The Senate is hoping that by sweetening the deal for the military, Trump will forget about the longstanding issue over which he’s threatened a shutdown in the past: money for his prize wall along the southern border with Mexico.
Earlier this year, he nearly vetoed a spending package because it didn’t have the funding he wanted. At the signing, he said he would “never sign another bill like this again.”
Since then, his hardline immigration demands have only increased, in direct odds with a Congress that would rather not take on a tough partisan fight so close to Election Day. Last month, Trump tweeted that he would again be willing to veto a spending bill if “Democrats do not give us the votes” on border security, so-called “catch and release,” and the diversity visa lottery.
But if it were up to Republicans, Congress wouldn’t be dealing with immigration at all — let alone right now, when they want to avoid divisive issues in an election year.
Republicans know government shutdowns are very unpopular. And Trump’s immigration agenda doesn’t fare well among voters overall. More than half of Americans — 58 percent — disapprove of how Trump has handled immigration matters, according to an early July Quinnipiac poll. A Reuters poll similarly found that 52 percent of Americans disapproved of Trump’s immigration agenda. Republicans are much more likely to approve of Trump’s immigration agenda, but a government shutdown over immigration policy could be disastrous for vulnerable Republican candidates.
But even in a year when Democrats are trying to harness their base’s enthusiasm to knock Republicans out of power in Congress, Trump hasn’t heeded his party’s political concerns. The coming weeks will be a test of whether he really has an appetite for a second shutdown — even if it has the potential to hurt his party’s electoral chances.