The question of whether President Donald Trump will shut down the federal government has now become the budget equivalent of a scene from Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” with Trump endlessly reciting his own version of the “To be or not to be” soliloquy.
As a result, with just 7 legislative days to go before the end of the fiscal year, and even though congressional Republican leaders are trying hard to prevent it from happening, there’s still little-to-no certainty about whether Trump will cause the government to shut its doors if he doesn’t get the billions of dollars he wants to build a wall between the United States and Mexico.
Trump has become less rather than more predictable over the past few weeks as the shutdown deadline has gotten closer and as he’s become preoccupied with Mueller, Cohen, Manafort, Sessions, Papadopoulos, the Woodward book, the anonymous New York Times op-ed, his increasing disapproval in the polls and Republicans’ apparent declining prospects in the mid-term elections.
It became obvious last week when Trump’s “Hamlet”-like erratic behavior on the shutdown was on full display.
First he was quoted by the Daily Caller last Tuesday saying he didn’t “like the idea of a shutdown” and wouldn’t cause one before the election. But on Wednesday he seemed to change his mind telling reporters “if (a shutdown) happens, it happens.”
There’s still little-to-no certainty about whether Trump will cause the government to shut its doors.
The next day, Trump said on “Fox and Friends” that he wouldn’t shut down the government before the election but would instead wait until afterwards in the lame duck session of Congress so the shutdown wouldn’t have negative political repercussions for Republicans.
But then on Friday, as The Washington Post’s John Dawsey, who was on the plane, tweeted that Trump told reporters on Air Force One the opposite of what he had indicated on Thursday: A shutdown would be good for the Republicans running for reelection this November.
Trump says he would like to shut down the government because he thinks it would be politically advantageous. “I would do it because I think it’s a great political issue,” he tells pool, per @jdawsey1
— Peter Baker (@peterbakernyt) September 7, 2018
He also told me that Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin supported it. https://t.co/Al2WttVo0H
— Josh Dawsey (@jdawsey1) September 7, 2018
Last week demonstrated that what Trump says on any given day greatly depends on who he has just talked to. Early last week it was House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), both of whom argued against a shutdown…and Trump agreed.
Trump took his cues later in the week from the people who attended his rallies and responded very enthusiastically when he mentioned a shutdown…and he agreed.
By Friday, Trump cited right-wing icons Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin as encouraging him to shut down the government to force Congress to give him what he wants for his wall…and once again Trump agreed.
So far Trump has repeatedly huffed and puffed about shutting the government only to back down at the last-minute either in response to a vague promise by Ryan and McConnell to get him his funding later or in response to pleas from the White House staff to sign whatever Congress has sent him.
But even though Ryan, McConnell and the White House staff will all be part of the play again this time and the outcome may be the same, there will also be several new scenes and characters.
For example, Trump is scheduled to be on the road holding rallies and campaigning for Republicans two more days in September. The pro-shutdown crowds that will be there could have a substantial impact on his thinking.
In addition, Hannity et al. may try to stay in closer touch with Trump over the next few weeks than they have in the past to thwart Ryan, McConnell and the White House staff’s inevitable attempt at last-minute influence.
And, of course, Mueller, Manafort, Sessions and the others will sill be around.
All of this means that the outcome of this shutdown fight, like “Hamlet,” won’t be known until the last act. For the shutdown, that probably means very late on September 30th.
It’s important for Trump to remember, however, that “Hamlet,” while a critical success, was also one of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies.
Follow Stan Collender on Twitter @thebudgetguy.