WASHINGTON -- Compared to many other government shutdowns, last weekend’s mini-closure barely registered a blip on the pipsqueak scale.
When a shutdown seemed inevitable, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell placed a call to the White House to tell President Trump the bad news.
If this was going to go down in the history books as the president’s first real crisis, a White House photo of Trump appearing to deal with it from his Oval Office desk turned out to be a pig in a poke.
Wearing a white “Make America Great Again” hat, the nation’s chief executive was on the phone, sitting at his desk that was “barren of papers,” or anything else for that matter, as the Washington Post reported it.
Not a pencil or pen, not a legal pad to take notes, not a briefing book on the legislative logjam that threatened to hold up the critical work of Congress and the government.
If this was supposed to be a symbol of the nation’s most powerful desk, where the president was grappling with the nation’s business, it certainly looked like nothing was really going on.
It immediately reminded me of another, very different photo early in Ronald Reagan’s presidency on Nov. 16, 1981, when I walked into the Oval Office to conduct a one-on-one interview not long after his remarkable recovery from an assassination attempt.
Reagan was writing at his desk that was covered with papers, reports, notebooks and a legal pad filled with notes, along with a pen lying on it. He quickly rose, put on his suit jacket, and we shook hands as a photographer clicked away. There’s a picture of us and that desk on my office wall that reveals a very busy president at work.
No one who really knows how the Trump White House operates believes he was on top of the weekend’s budget troubles on Capitol Hill.
“The staging epitomized Trump’s role during the roughly 72-hour hour crisis: A president to be seen but not publicly heard outside the confines of his team’s highly controlled communications operation,” The Washington Post reported.
Still, the potential for a full-fledged shutdown for a brief time seemed possible late Friday night when McConnell called Trump, telling him to make preparations for closing down the government.
At McConnell’s suggestion, Trump called Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, the ringleader behind the Democrats’ plan to close the government until they could extract GOP concessions on immigration reform.
At a hastily arranged White House meeting, Schumer and Trump talked about a way out of the showdown, and the senator made a lot of bogus promises about agreeing to money to build the wall along the U.S.-Mexican border, but nothing came of it.
But throughout the weekend and into Monday, Trump kept out of public sight, leaving the heavy lifting to the GOP’s Senate leadership.
It wasn’t until Monday afternoon, when Democrats agreed to an extension on the budget deadline, that Trump finally made a public statement, read by White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
“I am pleased that Democrats in Congress have come to their senses and are now willing to fund our great military, Border Patrol, first responders, and insurance for vulnerable children,” Trump’s statement said.
But he also held out hope for what was interpreted as offering legal status to “Dreamers,” immigrants who were brought into our country illegally as very young children by their parents.
“As I’ve always said, once the government is funded, my administration will work toward solving the problem of unfair, illegal immigration. We will make a long-term deal on immigration if, and only if, it’s good for our country,” Trump said.
Was this an offer by Trump to agree to let hard-working, educated Dreamers remain in America legally, in exchange for an agreement to begin funding parts of the border plans? He knows this won’t play well among his political base and will likely unleash a broad political backlash against him.
But he was inching closer to the gamble that most of his base will accept the trade-off if it means getting started on a limited wall this year, along with improved security systems along the border.
Then on Wednesday, Trump went further, saying for the first time that he wants the Dreamers to have a path to citizenship. “It’s going to happen,” he said.
If there is one lesson that Trump may have learned over the course of his first year in office, it is that governing is in large part a game of trade-offs.
He stayed out of the shutdown fight and let it run its course on the advice of senior aides. Now he’s ready to deal.
It was a valuable lesson learned and maybe a new chapter in Donald Trump’s education in Government 101.
Donald Lambro has been covering Washington politics for more than 50 years as a reporter, editor and commentator.