John Fund: How Trump outsmarted Schumer and won the shutdown fight

Democrats were clearly frustrated that they confronted a new President Trump during the three-day government shutdown that ended Monday night. The president uncharacteristically laid low and made no public appearances.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. D-N.Y., even taunted President Trump: “The great deal-making president sat on the sidelines.”

But in the end it was Schumer who had to blink and lead his troops in a humiliating retreat on the shutdown. Many Democrats blamed their failure on the White House’s new strategy.

Politico reported: “The stand-back-and-watch approach paid off, putting pressure on Senate leaders to reach an agreement to open the government on their own – and delivering Trump a much-needed victory.”

Despite all his success in life, Trump has often paid a high price for his impulsive behavior and inability to step out of the spotlight.

In his new book “Media Madness: Donald Trump, The Press, And The War Over the Truth,” Fox News “MediaBuzz” host Howard Kurtz reports that Trump aides have privately coined a term for Trump’s penchant to go his own way: “Defiance Disorder.”  

Kurtz writes: “The phrase refers to Trump’s seeming compulsion to do whatever it is his advisers are most strongly urging against, leaving his team to handle the fallout.”

But with the government shutdown it was different and there may a lesson there. As negotiations to keep the government open faltered Friday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., called Trump and urged him not to reach out to Democrats such as Schumer to strike a grand bargain.

“Make them come to you,” McConnell implored the president. Trump agreed and then, according to the Washington Post, paid McConnell a high compliment: “You are a good negotiator.”

The new Trump strategy worked like a charm. Democrats didn’t have an easy, public target to vilify. Senate Republicans were forced to empower themselves and not rely on the White House calling signals. House Republicans were able to get their message out: they had voted to keep the government open and it was Democrats who were refusing to do so because the put a higher priority on immigrant rights.

The failure of their shutdown strategy also touched off a mini civil war within the ranks of congressional Democrats.

“They blink, they just do, and it’s unfortunate,” Rep. Luis Gutiérrez, D-Ill., a strong advocate for immigrants, said about Senate Democrats. “I thought they were going to stand tall and firm.”

Rep. Gwen Moore, D-Wis., railed against her Senate colleagues: “How do we know the Senate isn’t screwing us?” she asked.

“They are,” responded House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the second-ranking Democrat in House leadership.

Every confrontation between Congress and the White House is different, but after a year in office Trump aides now believe they have new tools in their negotiating kitbag.

“No one is saying Trump won’t be Trump, and he knows how to pivot and attack better than anyone,” one White House aide told me. “But he is also figuring out that timing is everything and you sometimes have to wait and let your adversaries trip over themselves.”  

Democrats have been used to dealing with a president who too often overreacts to taunts and provocations. They lost this time because the president changed tactics and outsmarted them. They may soon come to the realization that the 71-year-old Trump has learned new tricks and may surprise them again in the run-up to November’s midterm elections.

John Fund is a columnist for National Review. Follow him on Twitter @JohnFund.