With time dwindling before a new Congress is sworn in, Donald Trump refused to budge in his demand for billions in funding for a border wall, narrowing prospects for an increasingly damaging government shutdown to end when the legislature reconvenes.
His claim that Democrats are to blame for the deaths of migrant children in US custody, meanwhile, sparked a nasty political controversy.
Democrats will take control of the House of Representatives on 3 January. Through the weekend, Trump stuck to his strategy of trying to foist blame for the shutdown, now in its ninth day, on the opposition party.
Senior White House adviser Kellyanne Conway said the president was waiting for Democrats to negotiate, telling Fox News Sunday: “It is with them.” Amid criticism that Trump has not spoken to the incoming speaker, Nancy Pelosi, since 11 December, Conway told CNN’s State of the Union the president was “in the White House. He’s in Washington ready to negotiate.”
Democrats have accused Trump of derailing government in a misguided effort to advance a pet policy. On Twitter on Sunday, his primary means of communication during the shutdown, Trump gamely fired back, saluting “great work by my administration over the holidays to save coast guard pay during this
#SchumerShutdown, no thanks to the Democrats who left town and are not concerned about the safety and security of Americans!”
The hashtag was a reference to Chuck Schumer, the minority leader in the Senate. On Saturday, Trump noted that his border wall plan had failed to gain the support it needs in that chamber: at least 10 Democrats.
“Now we have to do it the hard way, with a Shutdown,” he wrote, seemingly adding fuel to Democratic claims that he is to blame. In that last meeting with Pelosi, and Schumer, the president said he would be proud to force a shutdown over the wall. Last week, Democrats said they had rejected a White House offer, made through Vice-President Mike Pence, to accept $2.5bn, down from $5bn. It is not clear if Trump would ultimately have supported such a deal.
Richard Shelby of Alabama, the Republican chair of the Senate appropriations committee, told CBS’s Face the Nation “the president made some proposals through the vice-president. I made some proposals to Senator Schumer, the night before. But right now we’re at a standoff, and I think that’s not good for the Senate, the House, or America.”
Most voters appear to be aligned with Democrats, who when not pointing to Trump’s campaign promise that Mexico would pay for the wall, contend that there is little need for it. At least 56% of Americans oppose Trump’s idea, according to a Harvard CAPS/Harris poll released on Friday.
Members of Trump’s inner circle have admitted as much, outgoing chief of staff John Kelly saying in an interview published on Sunday the proposal for increased border security was “not a wall”.
Democrats won overwhelming victories in the November elections by opposing Trump’s immigration proposals. A Reuters/Ipsos poll this week found that 47% of Americans blamed Trump for the shutdown and 33% blamed Democrats.
Controversially, Trump has blamed the deaths of migrant children in US custody on the opposing party, tweeting on Saturday that “any deaths of children or others at the Border are strictly the fault of the Democrats and their pathetic immigration policies”.
Two Guatemalan children have died in US custody this month. The circumstances and causes of their deaths remain unclear and disputed. Amid criticism of the president, Conway sought to turn the tables, telling CNN: “I don’t like some of these Democrats using these deaths as political pawns.”
She added: “The president does not want these children taking these perilous journeys. Some of them are paying the ultimate price.”
Former Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat openly considering a White House run in 2020, told CNN the president’s use of the deaths was inexcusable, “the lowest act I have ever seen [from] any president in the history of this country”.
On ABC’s This Week, commissioner of US Customs and Border Protection Kevin McAleenan said the deaths of the two children were “absolutely devastating”.
“Our agents did everything they could, as soon as these children manifested symptoms of illness, to save their lives,” McAleenan said.
Asked if the federal government bore any responsibility for the deaths, he said he thought it was “a multi-faceted problem that requires a multi-faceted solution”. He also called the situation at the border a “humanitarian crisis” and said children were “coming through a system built for adults who are violators of the law”.
“What we’ve done immediately,” he said, “is that we do medical checks of children, 17 and under, as they come into our process. That’s not a capacity we’ve had.”
McAleenan spoke positively of aid to central American countries, with whom he said the US should work to tackle the problem. In a Friday tweet, Trump threatened to cut off such aid to Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.
To end the shutdown, Trump could agree to sign some version of a spending bill passed before Christmas by Republicans in the Senate. But it did not supply the $5bn for a wall he has since demanded.
Speaking to CNN on Sunday, South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham speculated that Democrats might be willing to concede some “wall-slash-border security funding” in exchange for Republican concessions on protections for undocumented US residents who arrived as children.
“There will never be a deal without wall funding,” Graham said.
While the shutdown goes on, hundreds of thousands of federal workers remain without pay, facing increasing hardship. Key functions at agencies covering the environment, agriculture and other sectors are beginning to be affected. This week, Trump claimed without evidence that most workers affected “are Democrats”.