White House Memo: At the One-Issue White House, the Standoff Over a Border Wall Displaces Other Priorities

White House Memo

At the One-Issue White House, the Standoff Over a Border Wall Displaces Other Priorities

President Trump announced on Saturday a plan that would provide temporary protection from deportation for some immigrants in exchange for $ 5.7 billion in funding for a border wall.CreditCreditTom Brenner for The New York Times

WASHINGTON — For the last month, President Trump’s public schedule has mostly been a sparse document. The one issued for Tuesday, for instance, listed only his daily intelligence briefing and lunch with the vice president. No new policy announcements. No new cabinet appointments.

As the partial government shutdown enters its 33rd day, Democrats accuse Mr. Trump of hostage-taking tactics, but among the hostages has been his own presidency. Other than his single-minded pursuit of a border wall, Mr. Trump has all but put on hold advancing the rest of his agenda. It has become, as one administration official put it, a one-issue White House.

“There are important things that aren’t being addressed,” said William A. Galston, who served as a domestic policy aide to President Bill Clinton. But the wall has become the singular issue for Mr. Trump because he has become convinced that his presidency is on the line. “It’s easy to come up with a list of things on the domestic front that he should be worrying about,” Mr. Galston said, “but it’s just as easy to understand why he’s not.”

Senate leaders briefly raised hopes of a possible cease-fire in the shutdown on Tuesday by agreeing to hold votes on a pair of measures this week, but it appeared unlikely that either would draw the 60 votes necessary. Mr. Trump is eager to deliver his State of the Union address in the House chamber next week as originally scheduled, the most prominent platform a president has to set the terms for the coming year. But Speaker Nancy Pelosi has suggested it might be postponed or canceled if government agencies remain closed.

White House officials said they were operating on the assumption that the president would still give the speech at the Capitol next Tuesday unless expressly disinvited, but if that were to happen, they had alternative options, like a televised speech delivered in the East Room of the White House. The address is being written to unveil a variety of policies, not just discuss the border dispute, which is one reason it is so important to Mr. Trump.

The standoff has already forced Mr. Trump to cancel a trip to Europe to meet with global business leaders in Davos, Switzerland, at a time when the world economy faces a possible slowdown. The president has made no evident progress in filling a series of senior vacancies nor has he produced the tax-cutting plan he promised last year. He has done nothing in weeks to publicly promote priorities like fighting opioid abuse or bolstering the economy.

“There is this frustration that the shutdown is interfering with the ability of Republicans — I assume Democrats feel the same way — to advance the agenda,” said Lanhee J. Chen, who was chief policy adviser to Mitt Romney’s Republican presidential campaign in 2012 and is now at Stanford University.

And yet, given the new era of divided government, he added, “I’m not sure how quickly any agenda would be moving even if the government were open. That’s a sad testament about where we are as a country.”

Many of Mr. Trump’s agency leaders and senior advisers, of course, are still at work. His trade negotiators are focused on brokering an agreement to ease the tariff war with China, and Mr. Trump himself met with a visiting official from North Korea to pave the way for a second summit meeting with its leader, Kim Jong-un, as early as next month.

But at a time when a president is typically finishing a collection of policies in connection with the State of the Union and previewing them to build public support, some of Mr. Trump’s aides acknowledge that the president and his senior team have been almost entirely focused on the border dispute.

Indeed, administration officials said the situation had the unintended benefit of making it easier for Mick Mulvaney, the newly installed acting White House chief of staff, to settle into his job because he did not have as many issues to juggle.

The president, who made no public appearances on Tuesday, has kept his primary attention on the fight for the border wall for weeks, making only two unrelated out-of-town trips since the shutdown began, an unannounced stop in Iraq to visit troops at Christmas time and a quick flight to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware last weekend to pay respects to the returning remains of four Americans killed in Syria. Even a day trip to New Orleans to address farmers turned into another public pitch for the wall.

Still in his inbox are a slew of important vacancies to fill, including defense secretary, interior secretary and chief of staff. His attorney general, United Nations ambassador and Environmental Protection Agency chief are all serving in an acting capacity while waiting for Senate confirmation votes of his nominees. The White House on Tuesday sent 51 judicial nominations to the Senate, returning names that had gone unacted on last year.

Mr. Trump expressed no urgency when asked by reporters recently about all the acting officials in the upper echelon of his administration. “I like acting,” he said. “It gives me more flexibility.”

Left uncertain is how Mr. Trump may pursue other goals. He vowed before the midterm election to pass a middle-class tax cut in the new Congress but has said little about it since then. He also vowed to pull out of the North American Free Trade Agreement to pressure Congress to pass his newly negotiated replacement but has yet to do so.

He has similarly talked about collaborating with Ms. Pelosi’s Democrats, who just took over the House, on possible bipartisan initiatives like rebuilding the nation’s roads, bridges and other infrastructure or bringing down the cost of prescription drugs. Neither of those ideas has come up lately and it is hard to see the current impasse establishing the sort of trust that might lead to across-the-aisle cooperation.

Moreover, any bitterness or ill will that lingers once the current shutdown is resolved, assuming it is, may complicate future financial negotiations when the debt ceiling needs to be raised to keep the country from defaulting on its obligations and when the current fiscal year is over at the end of September.

That may depend on how the border fight turns out. Some optimists see the potential for an eventual deal between Mr. Trump and Democrats that includes money for his wall in exchange for permanent revisions to immigration laws protecting many of those who have lived in the country illegally for many years.

“Hopefully, in the end, we can turn an awful situation into a legislative accomplishment for both sides,” said Representative Josh Gottheimer, Democrat of New Jersey and a leader of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, who met recently with the president.

Others are not so sure. Mr. Trump has been willing to subordinate the rest of his agenda to the border wall, analysts said, because it is so central to his political identity and his campaign for re-election next year.

“The president believes that the wall represents his contract with America, certainly his contract with his supporters,” said Mr. Galston, who is now at the Brookings Institution. “He regards it, and I think probably accurately, as the issue that did more than any other to propel him to the White House.

“That being the case,” he added, “this government shutdown is not over a peripheral issue that overshadows other issues. It is the most important issue, at least from the perspective of the president.”

Annie Karni contributed reporting.

Follow Peter Baker on Twitter: @peterbakernyt.

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page A15 of the New York edition with the headline: No Progress on Wall, Or on Anything Else Worth Talking About. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe


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