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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On The Hill

‘WE’RE GETTING INTO UNCHARTED TERRITORIES’: We spoke with one Rep. Will Hurd, a Republican congressman who represents border territory in Texas who opposed Trump’s wall and wants to see the government reopen. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What’s your initial reaction to President Trump’s visit to McAllen?

“It is always good to go down and see what’s happening on the ground . . . My fear is that we use this opportunity to declare a national emergency, and I think that would be an actual overreach of power. While I do believe the Democrats need to show a willingness to negotiate on an agreement to get out of this, I think calling it a national emergency is the wrong way to go.”

Do you believe there’s truly a “crisis” at the border?

“This has been a problem under multiple administrations. This is a serious challenge, and it takes serious people to solve it. And it’s complicated, so we need a thoughtful approach, rather than empty rhetoric — from both sides, to be frank — and the way that we solve this is addressing the root causes, the violence and lack of economic opportunity in the northern triangle of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.”

How would you distill the core problem at the heart of the current impasse?

“All sides have backed themselves into a corner. There’s a lack of trust between the people who are trying to negotiate through this impasse . . . let’s put our swords away and try to do a solution that’s not a political solution that’s going to benefit one side, but that’s actually going to benefit the American people.”

What are you hearing from your colleagues in Congress?

“There’s a lot of conversations going on among legislators about how we get out of this. I also know there’s a lot of concern about federal employees … when people start missing paying the note on their car, on their home, we’re creating a crisis within individual families.”

What are you hearing from your constituents about this? 

“There’s a reason I continue to get reelected in a difficult political district. My bosses are the 800,000 people I represent and I have more border than any other member of Congress. I’m in those communities all the time … You have people worried about their land being taken …  In the great state of Texas we care about a little thing called private property law”

Would you support a DACA deal in exchange for wall funding?

I think adding DACA and [temporary protected status] is the solution to this. I think you can complete the Secure Fence Act and do some replacement with some of the physical barriers that have already been developed … I think that and modernizing our ports of entry with the latest technology.”

How long do you think this will last?

“I really don’t know … I think we’re getting into uncharted territories.”

Global Power

SYRIA UPDATE, AGAIN . . . SORT OF: The Pentagon and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo rebuffed national security adviser John Bolton on Thursday and said the U.S. is moving ahead to withdraw troops from Syria. 

  • The Wall Street Journal’s Nancy Youssef and Dion Nissenbaum report that despite Bolton’s announcement earlier this week the U.S. wouldn’t leave Syria until an agreement was reached with Turkey not to target the Syrian Kurds, the “Pentagon hasn’t any new direction and until it does, officials are proceeding with withdrawal plans.”
  • “Scores of ground troops are headed toward Syria to help move troops out, and a group of naval vessels headed by the amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge is headed to the region to back up troops at the vulnerable moment they are leaving the country, the officials said. The Kearsarge carries hundreds of Marines, helicopters and other aircraft,” the Journal reports. 
  • The key quote: “Nothing has changed,” one defense official said. “We don’t take orders from Bolton.”
  • And in Cairo, Pompeo claimed there was “no contradiction whatsoever” in the U.S. plan to withdraw from Syria: “The U.S.’s decision, President Trump’s decision, to withdraw our troops has been made. We will do that,” Pompeo said during his visit. 

Pompeo also delivered a “scathing rebuke of President Barack Obama’s Middle East policy in an address Thursday in Cairo that centered on exerting maximum pressure on Iran and doubling down on the United States’ alliances with Sunni autocrats and Israel,” reports The Post’s John Hudson and Sudarsan Raghavan.  

  • “The speech served as an explicit rebuttal of the address that Obama delivered in Cairo in 2009, which extended an olive branch to Iran and called for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In that address, Obama criticized Israel’s settlement activity and underscored the suppression of political rights by Arab monarchies.”
  • A group of Obama administration officials quickly rebuked Pompeo: “That this administration feels the need, nearly a decade later, to take potshots at an effort to identify common ground between the Arab world and the West speaks not only to the Trump administration’s pettiness but also to its lack of a strategic vision for America’s role in the region and its abdication of America’s values,” the National Security Action group said in a statement.

Missing from Pompeo’s speech: Any mention of Saudi Arabia’s killing and dismemberment of Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi or human rights violations in the region.  Pompeo’s remarks came right as Trump at home made remarkable comments favoring China’s Communist Party over Democratic leaders, claiming that he found China “in many ways to be far more honorable than Cryin’ Chuck and Nancy,” on the White House South Lawn. The New York Times’s Mark Landler noted the administration’s embrace of “foreign autocrats over elected American leaders.” 

  • Per Landler: “Mr. Trump’s affinity for strongmen is well established, as is his contempt for his predecessor and his habit of gleefully ridiculing opponents, regardless of their party affiliation. But rarely has the Trump administration offered such a striking display of embracing autocrats as friends and painting those at home with whom it disagrees as enemies.”

  • “‘Strongman envy helps explain both the president’s comments and a muddled view of the Middle East,’ said William J. Burns, a former deputy secretary of state who is now president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. ‘The irony,’ Mr. Burns said, ‘is that trashing his predecessor or congressional opponents on the global stage is seen by those same strongmen as evidence of his weakness and manipulability.’” 

100 DAYS LATER: Khashoggi walked into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul 100 days ago Thursday. He was murdered sometime shortly after that, the target of an assassination ordered, the CIA believes, by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. 

The Post’s David Ignatius wrote that MBS is “continuing with his autocratic governing style and a ruthless campaign against dissenters.” More than three months after Khashoggi, also a Post contributor, was killed, Ignatius found that the crown prince had changed very little in the way he wields power.

  • ‘Nothing can harm him’: “Domestically, he feels very confident and in control. As long as his base is secure, he feels that nothing can harm him,” one of Ignatius’s source said. Another added: “He’s completely unchastened by what has happened. That is worrying for Western governments.”
  • Key quote: Ignatius ends his piece writing that, “the Saudi engine of repression continues to run at full speed.”
  • A ‘red line’: At a memorial at the Capitol Thursday, a bipartisan group of lawmakers gathered to remember Khashoggi and raise awareness of escalating attacks on the press worldwide. “That’s why we can’t just let Jamal’s story fade away,” The Post’s publisher Fred Ryan told the crowd. “His assassination, I believe, is a red line, a threshold.”

In a New Yorker tribute, Khashoggi’s friend and fellow journalist Lawrence Wright wrote: “We will gather in Washington on Thursday to once again assert that America’s main role in the world is to champion liberty and human rights. We will stand up for journalists who have the courage to expose wrongdoing by the powerful, whether the interests they confront be those of our enemies, our allies, or our own government. Jamal Khashoggi was such a journalist. He embodied the qualities of truth and justice that America, at its best, represents. And we will thank him for reminding us.”


David Bowie died three years ago this week. So turn down the cable news at some point today and jam out to one of our favorite rock ‘n’ roll legends. 

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