The U.S. government is back in business. President Donald Trump signed legislation last Friday night to end the longest shutdown in the history of the United States. His decision has been widely cast as a defeat for the president. The entire episode was illogical and the administration had no strategy other than brute force to get the Democrats to capitulate to Trump’s demand for $5.7 billion to build a border wall. The reopening of government is only temporary, however: Trump has threatened to shut it down again in three weeks if he does not get funding for his wall by then. That tactic is likely to be as successful as it was the first time it was tried: Republicans are increasingly skeptical of the man in the White House and may now be ready to put their interests, and those of the Congress, ahead of those of the president.
There was no reason for the U.S. government to shut down last year. Both houses of Congress passed legislation to fund executive branch agencies, and the president had indicated his readiness to sign those bills. Criticism from right-wing radio talk show hosts and his most conservative supporters prompted Trump to change his mind, however, and refuse to sign any bill that did not include the money for his wall. And, the president insisted, he had to have “a wall”: Intensified border security would not suffice.
He miscalculated the strength of his chief adversary, Nancy Pelosi, the new Democratic speaker of the House. Pelosi, speaking for her party, insisted that while more border security was possible, there could be no funding for a wall, and negotiations could only begin when the shutdown ended. Trump’s belief that he could crack the Democratic caucus proved mistaken. The party remained united and the only fractures appeared among Republicans.
As the costs of the shutdown mounted, the president’s allies in Congress got increasingly nervous. Losses were estimated to reach $1 billion a week, and the hardships suffered by 800,000 government workers who were not getting paid proved a formidable rallying point for opposition to Trump’s policy. Insensitive and uninformed comments by senior administration officials compounded the damage.
The writing was on the wall last week when the Senate — where the GOP has a majority — voted on two bills to reopen the government. The Republican-sponsored bill received less votes than the Democratic alternative. It became clear that the president could not hold his party together and it was better to fold than face an even more humiliating defeat if a veto of subsequent legislation was overridden.
Trump insists that he will shut the government down again if he does not get his wall funding, believing that no policy was more central to his campaign and that any compromise would be fatal to his presidency. Yet, at the same time, in the face of adamant and united Democratic opposition, the White House does not feel any need to provide Pelosi with an incentive to change her position. That makes no sense and suggests that the administration lacks logic and fails to understand the new political dynamics after Democrats regained control of the House of Representatives.
If the White House does not get it, most Republicans in Congress do. They have seen opinion polls that blame Trump for the shutdown and largely give them a pass. They are unlikely to follow the president if he decides to try again to force the Democrats to back his agenda with another shutdown.
As a result, the president will be increasingly frustrated as he pushes his agenda on a divided Congress in a hyperpartisan political environment. That has implications for U.S. allies and partners.
First, Washington will be paralyzed as the president and the Democrats slug it out. If the Democrats adopt Republican tactics and decide to deny Trump any accomplishments out of principle (or spite), then the U.S. will be seized by gridlock. Japan, along with other like-minded governments, will have to fill the resulting international leadership vacuum. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has already seized the opportunity in pushing regional trade talks and will have to do more.
Other countries can also expect Trump to take his frustrations out on them. Japan, which Trump has long viewed as an unfair trade partner and a cheap rider in security affairs, should anticipate renewed pressure to conclude a bilateral trade agreement as well as charged negotiations over host-nation support. Japan must prepare for unexpected decisions in other areas that will affect its national interests — such as dealing with North Korea’s nuclear program or the U.S.-South Korea security alliance. The prospect of such surprises could, ironically, prompt yearnings for yet another shutdown.