Trump’s Latest Surprise: Shutdown Might Be a Good Idea

President Trump during a discussion on the gang MS-13 on Tuesday at the White House.

WASHINGTON — A week ago, President Trump stood before Congress as an improbable unifier. “Tonight,” he declared, “I call upon all of us to set aside our differences, to seek out common ground and to summon the unity we need to deliver for the people.”

This week, Mr. Trump is back to being a disrupter. After accusing Democrats of being un-American and even treasonous for refusing to applaud during his State of the Union speech, he said on Tuesday that he would welcome a government shutdown if he cannot reach a spending deal with Congress that tightens immigration laws.

A week ago, Mr. Trump called for a grand compromise with Democrats on the legal status of the undocumented immigrants known as Dreamers — a deal, he said, “where nobody gets everything they want, but where our country gets the critical reforms it needs.” After all, the president added, “Americans are dreamers too.”

On Tuesday, his chief of staff, John F. Kelly, said that many Dreamers failed to register for protected status with the government because they were “were too afraid to sign up” or were “too lazy to get off their asses.” He said he doubted Mr. Trump would extend the March 5 deadline that shields them from deportation.

Mr. Trump’s threat of a shutdown seemed to have little effect on the delicate negotiations on Capitol Hill to raise spending caps on military and nonmilitary spending — an agreement that, if passed by both houses of Congress, would pave the way for long-term deal to fund the government.

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Trump: ‘I’d Love to See a Shutdown’

President Trump threatened to shut down the government at a meeting with law enforcement officials to discuss gang violence.

Frankly, I’ll go a step further. If we don’t change the legislation, if we don’t get rid of these loopholes, where killers are allowed to come into our country and continue to kill, gang members. And we’re just talking about MS-13, there are many gang members that we don’t even mention. If we don’t change it, let’s have a shutdown. We’ll do a shutdown. And it’s worth it for our country. I’d love to see a shutdown if we don’t get this stuff taken care of. So we have to strengthen our borders, not by a little bit, but by a lot. We are so far behind the time. And by the way, the world is laughing at us because they can’t believe these policies. They don’t have it. I could name 15 of them right now. No other country in the world has what we have. And we’re going to get it stopped. And if we have to shut it down because the Democrats don’t want safety and, unrelated but still related, they don’t want to take care of our military, then shut it down. We’ll go with another shutdown.

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President Trump threatened to shut down the government at a meeting with law enforcement officials to discuss gang violence.CreditCredit...Tom Brenner/The New York Times

It was also not clear whether Mr. Kelly’s charged language about the Dreamers would affect the charged negotiations on immigration that will soon consume Congress, though it was the latest evidence that Mr. Kelly, a retired Marine general once viewed as a curb on Mr. Trump, shares some of his most hard-edge views.

Head-spinning reversals, of course, are nothing new for Mr. Trump. His positions on issues can gyrate more wildly than the Dow Jones industrial average. His is a presidency that has made the extraordinary ordinary.

After these latest remarks, the White House swung into its customary role of cleanup. The deputy press secretary, Hogan Gidley, played down Mr. Trump’s charges of Democratic treason as “tongue-in-cheek,” while the press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, muddied the waters on whether the president really planned to shut down the government.

Mr. Trump’s casual embrace of a shutdown — after the last brief shutdown, which he portrayed as a Democratic betrayal of America’s troops — drew an impassioned response from Representative Barbara Comstock, a Republican who represents a moderate district in Northern Virginia, an area that is home to many federal workers.

“We don’t need a government shutdown on this,” she said, imploring Mr. Trump. “Both sides have learned that a government shutdown was bad. It wasn’t good for them.”

For others in Washington, however, there was a creeping sense of numbness. Mr. Trump has said so many outrageous things, has broken so many taboos and has insulted so many people that his latest outbursts no longer shock. To some, they seem more of the same.

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Trump Berates Democrats as ‘Treasonous’

During a speech on Monday at a factory in Ohio, President Trump chided Democrats for not clapping during his State of the Union address.

Did anybody happen to see the State of the Union address? Right? O.K. It got to a point where I really didn’t even want to look too much during the speech over to that side. Because, honestly, it was bad energy. No, it was bad energy. You’re up there, you’ve got half the room going totally crazy, wild. They loved everything, they want to do something great for our country. And you have the other side, even on positive news, really positive news like that, they were like death. And un-American, un-American. Somebody said treasonous. I mean, yeah, I guess why not. Can we call that treason? Why not. I mean, they certainly didn’t seem to love our country very much.

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During a speech on Monday at a factory in Ohio, President Trump chided Democrats for not clapping during his State of the Union address.CreditCredit...Tom Brenner/The New York Times

It fell to Senator Jeff Flake, the lame-duck Arizona Republican who has emerged as a prime nemesis of Mr. Trump, to point out the novelty of an American president branding members of the other party as traitors because they did not celebrate him.

“Have we arrived at such a place of numb acceptance that we have nothing to say when a president of the United States casually suggests that those who choose not to stand or applaud his speech are guilty of treason?” he said from the floor the Senate. “I certainly hope not.”

Mr. Flake noted that “the president’s most ardent defenders use the now-weary argument that the president’s comments were meant as a joke, just sarcasm, only tongue in cheek.”

“Treason,” he thundered, “is not a punch-line, Mr. President.”

Part of the problem is that Mr. Trump’s most inflammatory comments do sometimes appear tossed-off. His claim that Democrats were guilty of treason came during a rambling speech at a factory near Cincinnati, where his celebration of the recent tax cut gave way to a litany of complaints about the stone-faced Democratic reception of his speech.

“Can we call that treason?” Mr. Trump mused. “Why not? I mean they certainly didn’t seem to love our country very much.”

The president embraced the idea of a shutdown during a White House meeting meant to dramatize the dangers of the gang MS-13. After listening to Representative Michael McCaul, Republican of Texas and the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, talk about how loopholes in the immigration laws allow violent criminals to get into the United States, Mr. Trump suddenly upped the ante with Democrats.

“If we don’t change it, let’s have a shutdown,” he declared. “We’ll do a shutdown. And it’s worth it for our country. I’d love to see a shutdown if we don’t get this stuff taken care of.”

Later, Ms. Sanders noted that the president did not view the spending bill and immigration as “mutually exclusive,” meaning that he would not necessarily precipitate a shutdown if Congress agreed on spending without meeting his demands on immigration.

At the same time, she questioned the patriotism of Democrats who sat on their hands during Mr. Trump’s discussion of the thriving American economy. “Democrats are going to have to make a decision at some point really soon,” Ms. Sanders said. “Do they hate this president more than they love this country? And I hope the answer to that is, ‘No.’”

For many in Washington, the best defense against Mr. Trump is to treat him as less than serious. On Monday, he went after the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Representative Adam B. Schiff of California — or, as Mr. Trump nicknamed him, “Little Adam Schiff” — for being, he said, a liar who illegally leaked confidential information.

Mr. Schiff has drafted a Democratic rebuttal to the classified House Republican report that raised questions about the conduct of the F.B.I. in investigating links between the Trump campaign and Russia.

“Must be stopped!” Mr. Trump said on Twitter of the congressman.

Mr. Schiff, taking a page from Senator Bob Corker, Republican of Tennessee, when Mr. Trump subjected him to ridicule on Twitter a few months ago, replied with the tone of a weary parent, coping with an unruly toddler.

“Mr. President,” he wrote, “I see you’ve had a busy morning of ‘Executive Time.’ Instead of tweeting false smears, the American people would appreciate it if you turned off the TV and helped solve the funding crisis, protected Dreamers or...really anything else.”

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