In a West Wing in Transition, Trump Tries to Stand Firm on the Shutdown

In a West Wing in Transition, Trump Tries to Stand Firm on the Shutdown

President Trump hosted a round-table discussion on border security during the shutdown, which polls show most Americans blame him for.CreditCreditSarah Silbiger/The New York Times

WASHINGTON — President Trump has insisted that he is not going to compromise with Democrats to end the government shutdown, and that he is comfortable in his unbendable position. But privately, it’s sometimes a different story.

“We are getting crushed!” Mr. Trump told his acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, after watching some recent coverage of the shutdown, according to one person familiar with the conversation. “Why can’t we get a deal?”

The president is confronted by a divided and partially shuttered government with an untested staff that has undergone yet another shake-up. Polls show that most Americans blame him for the government shutdown, and his advisers are warning him of its negative effects on the economy. And as the shutdown enters its 27th day on Thursday with no end in sight, most of his top aides would like him to find a way out.

Mr. Trump has told them he believes over time the country will not remember the shutdown, but it will remember that he staged a fight over his insistence that the southern border be protected. He wants Democrats to come back to the table agreeing with his position on a wall, and he does not understand why they have not.

But despite his public bravado, and the tweets about “Radical Democrats,” Mr. Trump has had recurring moments of frustration as he takes in negative news coverage of the shutdown, pointing his finger at aides for not delivering the deal he wants. Yet the aides say that the president believes he is still playing a strong hand and that any moments of frustration have been fleeting.

Some of his fellow Republicans are wondering if there is actually a plan on how to achieve that deal. “The White House and its allies have to have a sense of clarity and a sense of achievement on this, and in order to get there you really do have to have a much broader strategy from the beginning,” said Kevin Madden, a Republican strategist. “This has largely been driven by a reaction to the latest 30 minutes of a cable news cycle.”

To the extent there has been a strategy, aides have encouraged Mr. Trump to use his State of the Union address, scheduled for Jan. 29, to move public opinion to his side, an opportunity now threatened by Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s request on Wednesday to delay the speech or scrap it all together. But the president shrugged off his Democratic antagonist’s bold move, and did not even mention it at a lunch with a bipartisan group of House members on Wednesday, according to an attendee.

Under Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, some of the rules of the John F. Kelly era have been undone.CreditSarah Silbiger/The New York Times

The president remained silent on Twitter for much of Wednesday, and Democrats who met with Mr. Trump said they found him to be in a congenial mood. “It was productive and constructive,” said Representative Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey, one of seven Democrats who attended the meeting.

The meeting, aides said, had been intended to show moderate Democrats just that — that the caricature of Mr. Trump throwing a “temper tantrum” and storming out of a meeting, painted last week by Ms. Pelosi and Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the minority leader, does not capture the whole picture.

Behind the scenes, meanwhile, the White House is in a moment of transition as West Wing staff members become acclimated to the leadership style of a new chief of staff. Mr. Mulvaney, a former congressman from South Carolina, has told aides he has no plans to duplicate the type of chain-of-command structure preferred by John F. Kelly, the retired Marine general he replaced. Nor did he want to limit anyone’s access to Mr. Trump.

“You’re all adults,” Mr. Mulvaney told the White House staff members in attendance, according to an administration official in the room. “You all have relationships with him.” Mr. Mulvaney said he was not interested in managing those relationships himself.

Mr. Mulvaney, who started in an acting capacity on Jan. 3, after the shutdown was underway, has more experience as a principal than as a staff member. While serving as director of the Office of Budget and Management, he was not particularly close with Mr. Trump, who aides said came to admire his skills on television.

Under Mr. Mulvaney, some of the rules of the Kelly era have been undone. Access to the Oval Office, for one thing, is easier. Where Mr. Kelly’s instinct was often to keep extra bodies out of meetings, now aides who want to attend meetings are welcome to grab a chair in the back and sit in.

In his meeting with his staff, Mr. Mulvaney brandished a copy of “The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency,” by the author Chris Whipple, sharing passages about successful management models from past administrations.

Mr. Mulvaney stressed that he didn’t need to always be in the room with the president or to sign off on everything. But, he said, he wanted to be kept in the loop.


Mr. Trump has shrugged off Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s request that he delay his State of the Union address.CreditSarah Silbiger/The New York Times

Unlike his predecessors, according to White House officials, Mr. Mulvaney is not interested in challenging what has revealed itself to be the one constant in the Trump White House: the special status reserved for Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, the president’s family members and senior advisers, in the West Wing.

Mr. Mulvaney’s more hands-off approach to the family members has allowed Mr. Kushner to position himself among lawmakers on Capitol Hill as the person who can deliver to Mr. Trump what he wants. The dynamic, according to multiple White House officials, is similar to the opening days of the administration, when the staff to the new president was just beginning to meet with Washington officials and Mr. Kushner often told people that “everything runs through me.”

This time, however, Mr. Mulvaney is doing nothing to curb his influence. In fact, he is treating Mr. Kushner and Ms. Trump as assets, rather than rivals. And they are seeing a new ally. On Sunday night they hosted Mr. Mulvaney and his wife at their Kalorama mansion for a social dinner.

His appearance in B-roll shots on cable news channels, traipsing the halls of Congress shoulder to shoulder with Vice President Mike Pence, have left current and former Trump aides frustrated with the appearance that Mr. Kushner is serving as a de facto chief of staff. Multiple White House officials said he is ascendant in the West Wing after his successful role in helping to pass a bipartisan criminal justice reform bill.

But people close to Mr. Kushner insist that he is simply trying to provide assistance during a difficult period and is not looking to undermine Mr. Mulvaney’s role, while Mr. Kushner has insisted he is planning to return to his longer-term projects when the shutdown is over.

Under Mr. Kelly, any conversations with elected officials were required to be coordinated through the former legislative affairs director, Marc Short. But during Mr. Mulvaney’s tenure, Mr. Kushner has reached out to Democratic lawmakers and then briefed Shahira Knight, the legislative director, on his calls after the fact. The new system has been greenlighted by Mr. Mulvaney, who has also shrugged off any issue with Mr. Kushner taking a lead role.

But it is not clear that Mr. Kushner’s outreach, or any relationships he has forged over the past two years with Democratic lawmakers, has resulted in any movement in getting Mr. Trump the success he is seeking in funding the border wall.

A senior White House aide said on Wednesday night that the view from inside the White House was that neither side was willing to take the leap and compromise. And Mr. Trump’s ability to make a national emergency declaration, the aide said, was still an option that was on the table.

A version of this article appears in print on of the New York edition with the headline: A West Wing in Transition, Trying to Stand Firm. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe


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