President Donald Trump’s meeting with Democratic congressional leaders Tuesday exploded into an argument before it really began, ending with the president declaring he would be “proud” to shut down parts of the government if it results in a border wall.
In a remarkable brawl in front of television cameras, the president, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer jabbed at one another over immigration, government funding and November’s election results. The spat threatens already delicate talks to keep the government open past a Dec. 21 deadline, when funding for seven government agencies will lapse.
Pelosi has said she will not agree to any money for a wall along the Mexican border in a Department of Homeland Security funding bill. She and Schumer planned to offer Trump a deal to pass appropriations bills for six agencies, along with a year-long measure to keep DHS funding at current levels, according to NBC News. If Trump denied that agreement, the Democrats planned to suggest a yearlong continuing resolution for all unfunded departments.
As the argument played out on TV, U.S. stock markets fell to their lows of the day. The verbal fight “certainly destroy’s people’s confidence in the government” and reduces hopes for cooperation between the two sides when Democrats take a House majority in January, said Art Cashin, director of UBS floor operations at the New York Stock Exchange.
At the start of the White House meeting, Trump repeatedly touted his proposed border wall, one of his top political promises. He seeks $5 billion to fund it in a year-end spending package, a demand Democrats do not want to meet. He repeatedly claimed large portions of the wall have already been built, though Congress has only passed funds to construct new fences or repair existing ones.
Trump then asked Pelosi to speak. She said “the American people recognize we must keep the government open” and warned of a “Trump shutdown.” When Pelosi turned the topic to the votes needed in Congress to fund the government, the conversation devolved into an argument.
“No, we don’t have the votes, Nancy,” Trump shot at the California Democrat. “I can’t get it passed in the House if it’s not going to pass the Senate,” he added.
Trump referenced his inability to get the nine Senate Democratic votes, and 60 total, needed to pass his immigration priorities. The House needs a majority of 218 votes, and Republicans current hold 236 seats.
After more back and forth about votes, Schumer said: “We do not want to shut down the government.” He touted a bipartisan Senate proposal to put $1.6 billion toward border security, but not a wall as Trump seeks. Lawmakers passed the same level of funding in last year’s spending bill.
“And if it’s not good border security, I won’t take it,” Trump fired back, adding that “you can’t have border security without the wall. Pelosi retorted: “That is not true.” She called for an “evidence-based” assessment of what works at the border.
Schumer said the U.S. can achieve border security without a wall, which “doesn’t solve the problem” of illegal immigration. The president snapped that “it totally solves the problem.” Schumer also noted that Trump repeatedly promised Mexico would pay for the wall.
The president and Senate Democratic leader continued to trade barbs, prompting Trump to ask rhetorically, “Did we win the Senate?” Republicans picked up two Senate seats in November’s midterm elections. Schumer replied: “When the president brags that he won [red states] North Dakota and Indiana, he’s in real trouble.”
After more squabbling in which Trump accused Schumer of letting funding lapse earlier this year, the president said he would take the blame for a shutdown over immigration.
“If we don’t get what we want, one way or the other, whether it’s through you, through military, through anything you want to call, I will shut down the government,” Trump said, as Schumer sat staring forward and not meeting the president’s eyes.
“We disagree,” Schumer responded.
“I am proud to shut down the government for border security, Chuck. … I will take the mantle. I will be the one to shut it down,” the president said.
Through the whole argument, Vice President Mike Pence sat in a chair next to Trump without uttering a word.
In a joint statement after the meeting, Schumer and Pelosi said “we gave the president two options that would keep the government open. It’s his choice to accept one of those options or shut down the government.”
Asked as Schumer walked to the Capitol if the meeting was productive, the New York Democrat told NBC News that “what was productive was the president showed what he wanted: shutdown.”
The meeting was the second time Tuesday that Trump suggested the military could construct the wall. It is unclear how that would happen, since Congress already passed a Defense Department spending bill without border wall funding. The Pentagon did not immediately respond to CNBC’s request to comment on the assertion.
Democrats and even some Republicans oppose Trump’s proposed barrier. Pelosi and Schumer have called it inhumane and ineffective. In a statement Monday night, the Democrats said “the president knows full well that his wall proposal does not have the votes to pass the House and Senate, and should not be an obstacle to a bipartisan agreement.”
Trump has played up the wall to excite his supporters. He has said he sees immigration as a “total winner” politically.
He spent the final days before November’s midterm elections stoking concerns about a so-called caravan of migrants heading toward the U.S.-Mexico border. Republicans lost 40 House districts and their majority in the chamber, while they gained two seats in the Senate.
Pelosi has her own political considerations in the funding fight. She needs votes from some skeptical Democrats in her bid to become speaker next month. Much of her caucus is adamantly opposed to border wall funding.
If funding lapses, it would be the third government shutdown this year.
— CNBC’s Patti Domm and Amanda Macias contributed to this report