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Trump’s real message may have been ‘Republicans, please stick with me’

President Trump spoke from the Oval Office on border security.
President Trump spoke from the Oval Office on border security.

Here are two things President Trump left unsaid during his first prime-time Oval Office speech on Tuesday night that were important: The partial shutdown of the federal government will continue for quite some time and “Republicans, please stick with me.”

On Saturday, the current shutdown will become the longest in American history.

Instead of announcing a compromise or even the highly controversial end run of announcing a national emergency, Trump, over the course of his speech, reiterated the same points the Republican has been making since the shutdown began. Then the Democrats, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, reiterated their same positions.


While national networks cut into their programming, the reality was more like a typical presidential weekly radio address and a Democratic response.

What movement there is in Washington — Republicans beginning to get wobbly with the president’s position — might have been the real reason the prime-time address happened in the first place. Indeed, Trump may have been largely speaking to a group of people he could have just invited over to the White House.

Republicans on Capitol Hill are increasingly becoming a problem for Trump. Last week, seven House Republicans voted with the Democratic majority on one spending bill that would reopen a portion of the government. Another eight are expected to join that seven when more such spending bills come up this week.

Senator Susan Collins of MaineWashington Post

In the Senate, two Republican US Senators — Maine’s Susan Collins and Colorado’s Cory Gardner — issued public statements supportive of the House vote. And West Virginia Republican Shelley Moore Capito signaled she could be warming to the idea of a stopgap measure to reopen the government after Trump said he thought the shutdown could last “years.”

There are 19 other Republican Senate seats that are up in 2020, including that of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.


Should enough Republicans join Democrats in reopening the government without any border funding, the political blow would reverberate for the rest of Trump’s presidency. In the short term, if he has spending bills on his desk and doesn’t sign them, it would be crystal clear who is to blame. In the long term, if Republicans aren’t willing to stick with him on his biggest priority, what clout will he have in shaping any future legislation?

Senator Cory Gardner of Colorado.J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press

On Tuesday night, Trump once again tried to blame Democrats for the impasse, potentially as a way of uniting Republicans.

“The federal government remains shut down for one reason and one reason only: because Democrats will not fund border security,” Trump said.

(Factually this is not the case. Republicans controlled Congress the past two years, including on Dec. 21, when the government shutdown began.)

If you focus on the actions of the administration — and not the scripted words — there are signs that the only crisis the president is dealing with right now isn’t on the southern border, but a political crisis in Washington.

The current state of play is this: House Democrats have passed bills to fully reopen the government, but the Senate has not allowed these bills to come up for a vote. McConnell is sticking to his position of not bringing a bill up for a vote that doesn’t have a chance of passing the Senate or that the president will not sign. And in this case, the president hasn’t signaled he will sign any of the House bills that simply continue spending at current levels.


Senate Democrats turned up the pressure in their chamber, beginning Tuesday to refuse McConnell the necessary 60 votes to pass any bill — no matter how bipartisan — until there is a vote to reopen the government.

This may have prompted Vice President Mike Pence to take the rare step of traveling to Capitol Hill (instead of having Republicans come to him) with the purpose of convincing Republicans to stay strong and continue to vote with the president.

Pence may not have accomplished what he hoped. Once he returned, the White House announced the president himself will travel to Capitol Hill on Wednesday to make the same pitch.

After the president’s speech Tuesday night, there is no more clarity about when or how the government shutdown will end. That’s probably because Trump doesn’t quite know these answers, either.

James Pindell can be reached at james.pindell@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell or subscribe to his Ground Game newsletter on politics: http://pages.email.bostonglobe.com/GroundGameSignUp