The US woke on Saturday to the 15th day of a partial government shutdown that Donald Trump said could go on for months or years, if he is not given funding for a wall on the Mexican border. New talks were due but as the nation digested the president’s rambling, contradictory and combative remarks at…
The US woke on Saturday to the 15th day of a partial government shutdown that Donald Trump said could go on for months or years, if he is not given funding for a wall on the Mexican border. New talks were due but as the nation digested the president’s rambling, contradictory and combative remarks at a White House press conference on Friday, potentially devastating effects of the shutdown were coming into focus.
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which provides dietary assistance to 38 million low-income Americans and is colloquially known as food stamps, will soon face cuts and will run out of funds in March. Tax refunds totalling billions of dollars and due in April to millions may be delayed. And, CNN reported, Transportation Security Agents vital to the operation of major airports are beginning to call out sick, after being forced to work without pay.
Hydrick Thomas, the president of the national TSA employee union, told CNN of the callouts by “hundreds” of officers: “This will definitely affect the flying public who we [are] sworn to protect.”
Trump named Vice-President Mike Pence, homeland security secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and senior adviser Jared Kushner as his representatives at meetings with Democrats, starting at 11am on Saturday.
He also returned to Twitter. Claiming “great support … from all sides for Border Security”, the president made a jab at familiar media targets when he wrote: “Teams negotiating this weekend! Washington Post and NBC reporting of events, including Fake sources, has been very inaccurate (to put it mildly)!”
Unlike House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy and minority whip Steve Scalise, Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, was not present at the Friday press conference. He has sought to leave Democrats and the president to fight it out, thereby to avoid political damage. Trump shrugged off McConnell’s absence but minority leader Chuck Schumer said: “The president needs an intervention, and Senate Republicans are just the right ones to intervene.”
Trump campaigned on a promise to build the wall, which he says is necessary to stop undocumented migration and the flow of drugs into the US, and to stop terrorists entering the country.
The last claim is as frequently questioned by media factcheckers as it is trotted out by Trump and his allies. On Friday, asked to comment on the claim made by her boss as she stood with him in the White House Rose Garden, Nielsen said more than 3,000 “special interest aliens” had been stopped at the south-western border in an unspecified period. It was swiftly pointed out that nearly all people crossing the border who are not from western hemisphere countries are thus classified.
Trump also campaigned on a promise that Mexico would pay for construction of the wall. That has not happened. The president and his allies claim a new trade deal with Mexico and Canada, not yet ratified by Congress, will provide savings to meet the promise. Political opponents and factcheckers doubt that.
Democrats who now control the House of Representatives have flatly refused to provide the $5bn Trump wants for the wall, which Speaker Nancy Pelosi has called “immoral” and which most experts believe would be ineffective and unrealistic.
Public polling shows majority opposition to Trump on the wall and immigration in general. The president is also playing to his political base.
Asked about a claim made by Schumer after a fruitless meeting on Friday that the White House was ready to continue the shutdown indefinitely, Trump said: “Absolutely I said that.”
He also said he could declare a national emergency and build the wall anyway “if I want”; rhapsodised about the qualities of steel, the material he now says the wall would be built with, instead of concrete, which previously he insisted was his material of choice; and claimed federal employees affected by the shutdown were “in many cases the biggest fans of what we’re doing”.
That contradicted a swiftly notorious tweet from last week, in which Trump claimed most workers “not getting paid are Democrats”.
Trump could technically declare an emergency and proceed to build his wall. In response to his claim on Friday, University of Texas law professor and CNN analyst Steve Vladeck tweeted: “One of the enduring phenomena of the Trump era is going to be the list of statutes that give far too much power to the president, but that we didn’t used to worry about because we assumed there would be political safeguards. Today’s entrant: The National Emergencies Act of 1976.”
It has been widely suggested that action on the legal status of Dreamers, undocumented migrants brought to the US as children, might be on the table in any deal to resolve the shutdown. But Democrats remain wary. A previous shutdown, one of three within a year, was triggered by Trump’s escalating demands for wall funding in return for such reform.
Multiple media outlets have reported increasing hardship for federal employees, about 800,000 in total, either sent home or working without pay. Pay cheques are next due on 11 January. On Friday, Trump, who last month signed an executive order blocking pay raises for federal employees, said he “might” block raises due to cabinet political appointees on Saturday. Pence said he would not accept his.
Deaths were reported in national parks affected by the shutdown but kept open with reduced staffing levels.
“We won’t be opening [government] until it’s solved,” Trump said at his press conference. “I don’t call it a shutdown. I call it doing what you have to do for the benefit and the safety of our country.”