It was as if Mark Meadows were watching a political car crash in slow motion. In November 2018, when House Republicans lost their legislative majority, it rendered him a bit player in Donald Trump’s Washington. Then in late November and early December, a more paralyzing fear began to creep into his mind: Republicans were going to fold and keep the government open without delivering on the president’s promise to fund the border wall with Mexico. Unthinkable. Unconscionable. He had to stop it.
As he entered a divided government, Meadows believed that finally this was Trump’s hill to die on. “It’s a symbol of the dysfunction of government overall, and it’s bigger than just the wall, and it’s why the two sides are dug in,” Meadows told us in January. “It’s who’s going to decide what happens in the next two years under this administration … We’re trying to figure out who’s going to be the most powerful person in Washington, D.C., and bottom line is, it’s either going to be Nancy Pelosi or it’s going to be Donald J. Trump. And that’s what this comes down to.”
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Months after the 34-day standoff that followed, the full story of how the president was pushed into the shutdown is a lesson in how to take the reins in Trump’s Washington. The lawmakers around Trump who wanted a shutdown knew exactly how to bring the president around to their side: threaten that others might perceive him as weak and push that threat around Capitol Hill and, eventually, all the way to Fox News. It helped to have a man on the inside, too—in this case, acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney. As Meadows was about to find out, following this playbook was enough to get inside the head of the most powerful man in Washington, and use him to get what Meadows and his allies wanted.
With Republican Washington taking its last gasp and Democratic D.C. rearing its head, the president was ready to take the plunge. On November 27, during an interview in the Oval Office for Politico, Trump laid out his demands: He wanted at least $5 billion for his wall and more money for border security.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer called each member of his Democratic Caucus to tell them that they could not let Trump get $5 billion. “There’s an endgame,” Schumer said in an interview days before the White House meeting. “January 3, Nancy is going to pass a [funding bill] without the wall, and we will be all for it, and it will be Mitch McConnell keeping the government closed.” He added: “We believe we have the upper hand.”
Schumer was right. On December 11, he and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi went to the White House for an immigration meeting with the president. Before long came the moment that would leave Republicans grimacing. Badgered by Schumer over who would be responsible if the government shut down, Trump decided to own it. “I’ll tell you what, I am proud to shut down the government for border security, Chuck, because the people of this country don’t want criminals and people that have lots of problems, and drugs pouring into our country,” the president said. “So I will take the mantle. I will be the one to shut it down.”
The meeting was a smashing success for Democrats and an undeniable train wreck for Republicans; there was near unanimity about that on Capitol Hill, even among many of the president’s aides. The president had a different view. After the meeting, Trump told House Speaker Paul Ryan that the “ratings were great. This is why I was so good at The Apprentice,” he said.
“There are ratings for this stuff?” Ryan asked, seemingly baffled by the remark.
“There are ratings for everything,” Trump said.
Just over a week later, as Meadows was on the House floor exhorting Republicans to keep a stiff spine, his fears of a GOP fold were coming to fruition on the other side of the Capitol dome. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was preparing a bill to fund all of the government through February 2019. This would be a way to avoid a shutdown, and it had the added benefit of disrupting the early days of Pelosi’s speakership with a wall crisis—a skirmish Republicans thought they could win.
Meadows didn’t like any of this. Why in God’s name would Republicans have more leverage once Democrats took back the House? he thought. Start the fight now. After he got off the House floor, he headed to the Capitol Hill Club with Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and fellow Freedom Caucus stalwart Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.). They were there to meet Mulvaney, their old colleague who had recently been named acting White House chief of staff, for a bite to eat. Whether they planned it or not, the private club meeting became the jumpoff point for the longest shutdown in American history.
At around 10 p.m., a few blocks away on Capitol Hill, McConnell did exactly what Meadows predicted: He took up the funding bill in the Senate, with little fanfare. The Senate was ready to give up. They passed the bill by voice vote, a rare method of passing a piece of legislation without a single senator having to cast a recorded vote. It showed just how uncontroversial this was in the Senate.
Then, with one phone call, the situation started spinning out of control for McConnell and Ryan. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy called Ryan with very bad news. He had spoken to Trump and got the sense that he was getting cold feet about supporting the spending package. The president had been watching cable news—Fox, mostly—and was getting lambasted. Another big-ticket spending bill with no wall money. That was the narrative Meadows and Jordan had teed up, and it worked: That’s what the president was hearing and seeing.
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Then Ryan got a call from Trump himself and heard the bad news straight from the president’s mouth: Trump told Ryan he was getting beat up on cable television, didn’t like it and was turning against the spending plan.
Ryan had little patience for this type of bullshit. You always suffered somewhere for making big decisions. Ryan had been a darling of the right wing before he became speaker and gave that up when he got into leadership. That’s just what leaders do, Ryan thought. You take the flak and move on. Trump, in Ryan’s view, was never able to do that.
“That’s how this always works,” Ryan told the president. He explained that a compromise bill to keep the government open would, indeed, anger the talkers on Fox News, but they would eventually get over it. The speaker tried to explain to Trump that a shutdown was not in his interest, but he wasn’t making much progress. “There’s no endgame,” Ryan said of shutting down the government. “You’ll just help the Democrats.”
“OK,” Trump said. “Let’s just talk in the morning.” Ryan hung up the phone feeling a bit better.
But back at the Capitol Hill Club, Meadows and Jordan were stirring up trouble. This was the moment, they were telling Republicans: The party should finally have the fight it had been waiting for for two years. Build the wall! Remember that? Jordan and Meadows did. And they were going to hold Trump to it. Mulvaney, a Freedom Caucus man at heart, began wheeling around the club, expressly threatening that the president might veto the package.
By the next morning, the entire GOP sounded like Meadows and Mulvaney. In a closed full-party meeting, House Republicans burst into revolt. It was immediately clear that Meadows’ brush fire had spread far and wide. Republicans wanted to fight.
Ryan and McCarthy walked into the meeting with what they thought was a manageable goal: try to persuade just half of the GOP membership to vote for the Senate-passed bill. But it was abundantly clear the game had slipped away from them. McCarthy told his colleagues that Trump’s request for $5 billion in wall funding could not pass the House, but they just booed and hissed at him.
As his fellow Republicans raged, Ryan’s phone rang. It was the president. Ryan stepped out of the meeting and into a small office next to the party’s Capitol meeting room to take the call. It was as if his conversation with Trump from the night before had picked up exactly where it left off: Trump was once again telling Ryan that he was getting killed on television.
Again? Ryan was pissed. He knew that Meadows had gotten to the president. Look, he told Trump, “this is some Fox News people, this is some Freedom Caucus guys and that’s it.” Ryan wanted Trump to see that the opposition was limited. “What’s your endgame?” Ryan quizzed him once again. “How do you get out of this? It’s like you’re shooting yourself in the foot.”
Ryan tried to make the case to Trump to hold off this fight until February 2019. He urged the president to sign the package and then spend the next two months building the case for an immigration deal that would trade DACA protections for a big border wall. He and McConnell separately had been trying to explain to Trump that when Pelosi took over, he would have no leverage over her at all. But it was all falling on deaf ears.
Ryan hung up the phone with the president after 45 minutes, having made no headway. He didn’t bother going back into the meeting room.
Toward the end of the meeting, Meadows’s phone rang. The caller ID showed “unavailable,” so he knew it was the president. Trump told Meadows he had spoken to Ryan and got the impression it was just the Freedom Caucus—Ryan called them the “Freedom guys”—that was opposed to keeping the government open, not a broad spectrum of Republicans. Meadows told the president that Ryan wasn’t being straight with him.
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So Trump asked Meadows and the Republican leadership to come to the White House and told the Freedom Caucus leader to bring 10 other Republicans with him. Trump didn’t want only right-wing conservatives, but rather a group that was representative of the entire party. So Ryan and Meadows headed down Pennsylvania Avenue for the White House.
At the meeting, Trump gave absolutely no doubt about what he was thinking: If it doesn’t have border security, he said, I’m not going to sign it. Of course, every bill under consideration had more than $1 billion in border security but not the billions he wanted for his wall. Throughout the meeting, Trump vacillated between policy, politics and grievances. He was still complaining about the fact that Pelosi and Schumer doubted that the House could pass the $5 billion he wanted for his wall. He seemed to want the House to do it for the explicit reason of proving them wrong.
By the end of the meeting, one thing was clear: The president had sided with Meadows and Jordan, two rank-and-file congressmen, over the speaker of the House and the Senate majority leader. He wouldn’t sign the bill without billions of dollars for his border wall. It was a stunning coda to a gobsmacking two years. The government was headed for a shutdown, and no one—including the president, Meadows and Jordan—had any idea how to get it back open again.
Weeks later, after Ryan had been proved right and Trump was forced to reopen the government while getting nothing in return, Trump’s ire toward Democrats reached a fever pitch. But the shutdown had revealed another great paradox of Donald John Trump: He often bragged about how big of a Republican he was, but he always seemed taken by the other party and its leaders. He cut deals with them, often projecting that he was willing to abandon the set of principles that got him elected in pursuit of bipartisan achievements, before being yanked back by his party. Deep inside, Trump seemed to know Democrats had something that Republicans, and, more acutely, he, was always struggling to find: unity.
“They’re lousy politicians, they’re lousy on policy, they got the worst ideas in the world, but they stick together,” Trump said of the Democrats in late November, just weeks before the shutdown. “And the Republicans do not stick together as well, OK? There’s no question about it. And I respect them for that, and I tell the Republicans that. I say, ‘These people stick together. Even if it’s bad, they stick together.’”