Power Up: Pence is in a tough position as Trump's shutdown messenger

It’s Friday. That means for the first time during the partial government shutdown, 800,000 furloughed federal workers won’t get  paid. It also means that this shutdown is close to making history as the longest one ever if the government has not been reopened by tomorrow. We’re doing our best to sift through the many emails coming in from Power Up readers affected by the shutdown — please keep writing. 

Breaking: The U.S. military announced the troop withdrawal from Syria is starting. From The Post’s Louisa Loveluck: “U.S. forces have ‘begun the process of our deliberate withdrawal from Syria,’ a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State said in a statement emailed to reporters. ‘Out of concern for operational security, we will not discuss specific timelines, locations or troop movements.'”

At the White House

SLOUCHING TOWARD A NATIONAL EMERGENCY: The White House is gearing up to declare a national emergency to build President Trump’s border wall, “eyeing unused money in the Army Corps of Engineers budget, specifically a disaster spending bill passed by Congress last year that includes $13.9 billion allocated but not spent for civil works projects” in order pay for the wall, according to my Post colleagues Erica Werner, Josh Dawsey, Mike DeBonis and Seung Min Kim. 

  • “Trump has urged the Army Corps to determine how fast contracts could be signed and whether construction could begin within 45 days, according to one of the people who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the preparations.”

In an interview on Fox News’s Sean Hannity’s show last night, Trump gave the clearest indication yet that he’s planning on declaring a national emergency: “Now if we don’t make a deal with Congress, most likely I will do that . . . I would actually say I would. I can’t imagine any reason why not because I’m allowed to do it. The law is 100 percent on my side.” 

The move would reopen the government but simultaneously set off a firestorm by tapping money meant primarily for disaster relief and setting a precedent that even some of his allies think is a bad idea and an abuse of executive power.

  • The usually favorable Wall Street Journal’s editorial board published an op-ed last night arguing such an action would “set a bad precedent that conservatives who believe in the separation of powers could live to regret” and “strain the limits of his executive authority.” 
  • The Journal’s Mike Bender, Kristina Peterson and Peter Nicholas report that Jared Kushner “has been lobbying for restraint . . . Declaring a national emergency, an option Mr. Trump has been leaning toward, shouldn’t be used to try to win a messaging war against Democrats opposed to a wall, Mr. Kushner said in a recent Oval Office meeting, these officials said.”

If Trump does pursue this course of action, a former top aide to Vice President Biden warned:

HOW DO YOU SOLVE A PROBLEM LIKE DONALD TRUMP?: Being Trump’s vice president is a Sisyphean task and Mike Pence voluntarily signed up for it. But the ongoing government shutdown laid bare just how hard it is to be Trump’s No. 2.

Pence has played point on Capitol Hill in negotiations to reopen the government. It’s a high-stakes role for the former Indiana governor and House GOP conference chair who has mainly kept his head down in a White House riven by chaos. Despite the impasse between Trump and congressional Democrats over the wall, Pence’s allies say he has helped frame the debate and kept Republicans in line with the president as pressure builds.

  • Pence has sought to run — and win — a parallel PR war for Trump, helping convince White House advisers to shift the focus of the conversation to the “humanitarian crisis” at the border, according to a White House official. Hill leaders followed suit (see Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s (R-Calif.) Twitter feed for three consecutive tweets regarding the “humanitarian crisis” starting Jan. 7). 
  • Pence has moved to produce tangible outcomes on the legislative front, requesting that the Office of Management and Budget hand Democratic staffers a paper trail outlining the White House’s needs. (Democrats complained it lacked sufficient detail.)
  • “If and when this thing ends — and I suspect it’ll be sooner than people think — it’ll be because of the negotiations that the VP led at staff levels,” a White House official argued of Pence’s “constant communication” with congressional leaders and his calm and measured demeanor.
  • “It’s a posture that most lawmakers and aides I spoke to appreciated, praising Pence as a valuable sounding board for their frustrations with the White House, notably at Senate Republicans’ weekly policy lunches, which he attends frequently,” The Atlantic’s Elaina Plott reports

The fruitlessness of serving as Trump’s shutdown messenger was crystallized over a period of two hours yesterday:

  • Before 2 p.m.: Pence told reporters that Trump had “been fairly clear” that an agreement including protections for young undocumented immigrants would not be used as a deal sweetener by Democrats to support the wall and reopen the government. 
  • By 3 p.m., Pence’s comments were upended by Trump himself on the border after he told The Post’s Phil Rucker that he would considering doing protections for “dreamers” and building the wall “simultaneously. The nice part about the wall or the barrier is that I can have that worked out in 15 minutes and we can start construction.” 

Lawmakers empathized with Pence’s predicament: 

  • “It’s a tough position for anybody to be in,” a senior GOP Hill staffer told Power Up. “I will say this about the vice president: The big worry or the big litmus test for where Republicans were or what they’re feeling was on these individual appropriations bills the House was passing,” the aide said, referring to the Democratic strategy of reopening parts of the government piecemeal. “There were two dozen Republicans who supported it. But then Pence came in and delivered a pretty clear message to the conference . . . I think that’s a W[in].” 
  • “Well, I think he’s been successful at that, for sure,” Rep. Will Hurd (R-Texas) told Power Up of Pence’s corralling of Hill Republicans. “He is trying to navigate some pretty tricky personalities.”
  • Nevertheless, The Post’s Robert Costa, who interviewed the veep over the weekend, tells us that Pence is enjoying his role in trying to broker the agreement, despite its impromptu nature.

P.S. Mark your calendars: Ex-Trump fixer Michael Cohen has agreed to publicly testify before Congress on February 7. In a statement Cohen, who was sentenced to three years in prison for lying to Congress about the work he did for Trump and campaign finance violations, said in a statement he looked forward to “having the privilege of being afforded a platform with which to give a full and credible account of the events which have transpired.” 

From a former FBI agent and CNN commentator:


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