With the latest government shutdown of the Donald Trump era set to go into effect Saturday at midnight, the president and his team are already planning to ratchet up the fearmongering, nativism, and scare tactics in order to try to get Democrats to give in to their legislative demands.
It is a familiar strategy for Team Trump, though one that has not always proved politically successful in the past. In conversations throughout Friday, political advisers and allies of the president said that they would again trumpet instances of chaos and violence on the southern border in order to pressure congressional Democrats into agreeing to add billions of dollars in border wall funding as a condition for reopening the government.
All that could be for naught, as lawmakers pledged to continue negotiating through the weekend in order to reopen the government before the holidays. But should they prove unsuccessful, Trump aides have an aggressive PR plan.
One senior administration official described their shutdown comms strategy as a “caravan redo”—in reference to how Republicans spotlighted and demonized a group of migrants coming traveling to the U.S. southern border in the lead-up to the midterm elections. (The strategy failed to stop the blue wave that occurred.) The official said that Trump and the Republican Party would “draw contrasts” between their draconian immigration policies and the Democrats’ more inclusive approach.
According to two administration officials, the White House intends to send advisers and surrogates throughout the shutdown standoff out on national television to hammer Democrats and to accuse them of wanting illicit drugs, terror, and “trafficking” pouring over the southern border.
“I think the key for the president is to make it abundantly clear to the incoming [Democratic] majority in the House that he is going to blame them for each and every [migrant] caravan, for each and every rushing of the border, for the violence that occurs as a result of illegal immigration” Matt Schlapp, a prominent Trump surrogate and lobbyist whose wife Mercedes Schlapp is a senior White House official, told The Daily Beast. “The game is on. He is going to go after them… It is going to be their fault and they will own all of it.”
The combative posture that the White House and its allies intend to adopt is in stark contrast to how things stood just days ago. On Wednesday, the Senate approved a stopgap spending bill that did not include the $5 billion that the president was demanding for a southern border. And they did so under the impression—offered by Vice President Mike Pence—that the president would ultimately sign the measure, which would have funded the government through early February.
But before the measure could be considered by the House, Trump balked. Conservative talk radio hosts excoriated him for abandoning a central campaign promise and he told GOP lawmakers that he would veto any government funding measure that didn’t included his wall money.
The change in position sent Congress scrambling. On Friday, Senate Republicans met with the president and declined his request to lower the filibuster threshold to 50 votes in order to get money for the border wall. Later in the day, Pence and the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and incoming chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, met with lawmakers to try and hammer out a deal.
What lawmakers settled on, instead, was a framework for leadership to keep talking; but those talks did not produce before they agreed to adjourn on Friday.
As it all played out, some of Trump’s closest aides and advocates were laying the groundwork for placing political pressure on Democrats. On Friday afternoon, White House official and immigration restrictionist Julia Hahn blasted out an email to surrogates and allies that compiled roughly a dozen quotes from President Trump on “border security,” which included Trump commenting on the great “enthusiasm” that the issue of the wall and immigration crackdown fuel in the Republican Party, according to a source who saw the email.
White House spokespeople didn’t respond to requests to comment as of press time. But within the Trump political universe, officials and allies seemed increasingly eager for the upcoming PR fight. When asked if he felt Trump should keep the government shutdown for the next two years of his first term if the Democrats didn’t capitulate on border wall funding, Schlapp quickly replied: “It would not break my heart.”
“The only part I would not be OK with is the hard working people who have jobs not getting paid,” he added. “The answer to the question is another question: are you OK with having chaos at the southern border?”
Inside the White House, the appetite for a fight was apparent as well. Of the people who the administration could put on TV to talk about the shutdown debate, one in particular has been notably offered up to bookers: Stephen Miller, Trump’s policy adviser and an architect of some of the administration’s most hard-line and brutal immigration policies.
“Right now as we speak there is a surge of illegal immigration heading toward our country that presents a national crisis now,” Miller said on CNN Thursday evening, in apparent reference to an influx of migrants seeking legal asylum at the southern border (actual border crossings have been on the decline). “Not a month from now, not a year from now, right now. And this president took an oath, like every lawmaker in Congress, to defend the citizens of this country. How many more innocent people have to die in pursuit of an open-borders agenda?”