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Trump tried to bypass Nancy Pelosi and negotiate with members of her caucus. None of them showed up.

Trump doesn’t understand how to negotiate with House Democrats.

President Donald Trump answers questions from the press as he departs the White House January 14, 2019, in Washington, DC.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

President Donald Trump tried a new strategy to get his border wall by going around House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Politico reported. He failed spectacularly.

On Tuesday, Trump invited moderate House Democrats to join him at the White House for lunch to talk about his wall and the shutdown. He used a similar strategy when Paul Ryan controlled the House, going around the speaker to negotiate with the far-right Freedom Caucus. But unlike Republicans, no Democrats attended the lunch meeting, according to White House press secretary Sarah Sanders.

The embarrassing episode shows two things: Democrats are united on shutdown politics and the president is underestimating Pelosi’s hold on her caucus.

“Is anybody surprised that the president is trying to get votes wherever he can get votes?” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) asked reporters this morning, laughing as he said it. “We are totally united, totally.”

Trump is trying to negotiate with someone other than Pelosi. That’s not how the Democratic caucus operates.

The flurry of White House invitations sent out on Tuesday afternoon and evening confused the House Democrats who received them. There seemed to be no real strategy on the part of the White House as to who was being invited, other than to try to make it seem like they were winning over moderate Democrats.

The White House invited five Democrats, according to a list Sanders sent out: Reps. Lou Correa (CA), Stephanie Murphy (FL), David Scott (GA), Charlie Crist (FL), and Abigail Spanberger (VA). Murphy and Correa are two co-chairs of the House Blue Dog Coalition, a faction of fiscally conservative Democrats. Spanberger is a first-term from a Red to Blue district who is also a member of the Blue Dogs.

Conspicuously absent from the list were Pelosi and Hoyer; as of Tuesday afternoon, House Democratic leadership had not yet received invitations from the White House for further negotiations on the shutdown.

This left some to wonder if Trump was trying to get moderate House Democrats in his corner as some Senate Republicans are showing signs of breaking ranks and calling for the government to be reopened.

“I think they’re trying to pick off certain people and see if they can get them,” a Democratic aide close to the talks told Vox. “I don’t understand what he’s trying to get out of this, other than a silly photo op. Nothing can happen without leadership. They need to agree on this.”

Murphy and Correa publicly declined the White House invitation. Murphy said she had a scheduling conflict, and both she and Correa urged Trump to reopen the government in statements.

“I continue to believe the Senate should pass and the President should sign the bills reopening government that the House already passed,” Murphy said in her statement.

Similarly, Correa’s spokesperson told Bloomberg’s Sahil Kapur that the Congress member “welcomes the opportunity to talk with the president about border security, as soon as the government is reopened.”

The strategy of inviting moderate Democrats to meet with Trump seems to be to pressure these members to agree with him. Because these members represent more conservative districts, the White House seemed to think they might be more compelled by the will of the Republican base.

But even rank-and-file Democrats who have had disagreements with Pelosi in the past know Democratic leadership has to negotiate with the president. If members went to the White House, they would likely talk to Trump about how the shutdown is impacting their district, not make deals on behalf of the party.

“It’s a huge miscalculation that leadership is going to be intimidated by vulnerable Democrats being summoned to the White House with less than 24 hours’ notice,” the aide said.

Trump is used to dealing with Republicans. He has to deal with a whole new environment.

When House Republicans were in charge, Trump used the tactic of bypassing Speaker Ryan, sometimes with great success. The president knew he had allies in conservative House Republicans, like House Freedom Caucus leaders Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC) and Jim Jordan (R-OH).

Especially during Ryan’s final days, Meadows and Jordan appeared to have more influence over the president than the Republican speaker did. They upended Ryan’s plan to pass a clean government spending bill right before the holidays that contained no money for Trump’s border wall.

As Trump grew increasingly concerned about talking heads on Fox News saying he was caving on his signature issue, Meadows and Jordan went straight to the president to urge him to go against House Republican leadership. The conservative members of the caucus had Trump’s back and would vote for a new funding bill with border wall money, they told him. Trump listened, and told Ryan he needed to add $5 billion worth of wall money to a funding bill — a chain of events that kicked off the current partial government shutdown.

So in some ways, it’s not surprising that Trump and White House officials believe they can replicate this style of forceful negotiation with Democrats. But in doing so, they’re demonstrating how little they know about how the other party operates.