I have mentioned before that Donald Trump is like a dangerous animal that will lash out indiscriminately when cornered or frustrated and there are already signs that this is happening. There is no doubt that he is feeling increasingly frustrated that more than seven months have passed and there has been no advancement on any of his major promises, nor is the prognosis good for any of them in the future. There has been no progress on his signature issue of building a border wall. The idea that Mexico would pay for it was always utterly ridiculous and his pleading with the Mexican president to not keep saying publicly that they would not pay is a sign that he realizes that it is not going to happen. His promise to repeal Obamacare has gone nowhere and although he says that he will bring the issue back, it is still far from reality. The tax cuts he promised have not materialized either. His promise that he knew how to destroy ISIS and win the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria has so far not been borne out and in fact he is now even more firmly embedded in Afghanistam. So he is zero for four on his major promises.
He must be wondering how long it will be before this reality sinks into the minds of his rabid base and how they will feel when that happens. As a result he has been reduced to boasting about how many bills he has signed, though these have been minor ones. His blustering campaign rallies, where he flails away at his perceived enemies, especially the media and even members of his own party, are signs of his desperation.
But the biggest sign of his desperation is his threat to shut down the government if Congress does not include funding for the border wall in the two essential pieces of legislation that Congress must pass by the end of September. One is a spending bill that ensures funding for government operations after the current budget period ends on September 30th. The other is a bill to raise the limit on the debt ceiling because the government will reach a hard limit on its borrowing ability sometime late in September. If either of these bills do not pass, the government shuts down.
Threats to shut down the government are not new and have become almost a staple of the current dysfunctional politics in the US. But usually the administration wants both legislations to be passed ‘cleanly’, i.e,, with no conditions attached, while it is Congress, either the leadership or some members, who threaten to withhold the bills unless some pet provision is included. This brinkmanship has usually ended with the spending and debt ceiling bills passing cleanly as the deadline drew near because people understood that shutting down the government would be chaotic. Two exceptions to passing clean bills were when president Obama caved to this kind of hostage-taking by agreeing to make the temporary Bush tax cuts permanent in order to get the bill passed, and when Newt Gingrich, then speaker of the House of Representatives, orchestrated an actual shut down. The latter proved highly unpopular and Gingrich lost his speakership soon after and then left Congress, and that lesson has not been lost on members of Congress who are now much more wary of carrying out the threat.
This time it is the president who is threatening to shut down the Congress if he does not get funding for his border wall while Congress wants to pass clean bills. Trump, ignorant and petulant man-child that he is, is quite capable of carrying out the threat. The only real brakes on such action are the presence of treasury secretary Steve Mnuchin and chief economic advisor Gary Cohn. They are both alumni of Goldman Sachs, that institution that seems to have a stranglehold on US economic policy, and they would oppose such a move because the stock markets would tank and the financial institutions know this and would hate to see it happen. Whether they would threaten to resign if Trump carried out the threat or whether they would betray their former firm remains to be seen. Cohn has said that he had been under pressure to resign and gone as far as drafting a letter of resignation in the wake of Trump’s appalling response to Charlottesville but this may simply be a case of wanting to have it both ways.
Meanwhile the Democrats have been steadfast in saying that there is no way that they will vote for any measure that includes funding the wall, which puts the Republican leadership in a bind since they will need Democratic votes. They are sending out signals that they too want clean bills. One possibility is that even if Trump does carry out his threat to veto the spending or debt ceiling bills if they do not fund the wall, Congress will override the veto. But all these scenarios of thwarting Trump require people like Mnuchin, Cohn, and the Republican leadership to demonstrate some spine, something that has not been at all visible up until now.
So here we are again, with another round of brinkmanship over government spending, with Trump’s obsession with the border wall being the decisive factor. Given his recklessness, it would be unwise to facilely assume that he will cave at the least minute.