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For The Deal-Making Trump, Compromise Seems To Be A Dirty Word

Trump Budget Director Mick Mulvaney points to an image of a border fence, making the case to reporters on Tuesday that there will be a border wall.
Mandel Ngan
AFP via Getty Images
Trump Budget Director Mick Mulvaney points to an image of a border fence, making the case to reporters on Tuesday that there will be a border wall.

Updated at 12:54 p.m. ET

For President Trump, one thing is important: winning, or at least the appearance of it.

So when the media narrative started to become that he didn't get what he wanted out of a new spending bill that will keep the government open through September, Trump got upset. (That compromise bill is supposed to get a vote and is expected to pass the House on Wednesday and the Senate on Thursday.)

Trump's irritation manifested in hot — and somewhat contradictory — ways Tuesday.

In the morning, Trump was so annoyed, he encouraged changing the rules of the Senate to get rid of the 60-vote threshold to advance legislation and advocated for a government shutdown this fall.

"Our country needs a good 'shutdown' in September to fix mess!" he said.

It is odd to have a president encourage a shutdown of the very government he is in charge of, especially since less than two weeks ago, Trump said he didn't want one.

"As far as keeping the government open," he said then, "I think we want to keep the government open, don't you agree?"

Trump made those comments as he was advocating for passage of the GOP health care bill. A vote on that bill hasn't happened yet despite White House promises it would be any day now.

What also didn't happen was the inclusion of some of the president's funding priorities he thundered about in the week leading up to last Friday's initial deadline for funding the government. Despite Budget Director Mick Mulvaney's taking to the White House briefing room Tuesday with photos of portions of a border wall and fencing, the spending bill does not provide the funding for a wall. And the Trump administration's gambit to tie Affordable Care Act subsidies to the wall didn't work, either.

To be clear, there are some things that the White House and Republicans should be happy about: They got increased military spending (not as much as they wanted, but still, it's more); more border-security money that can go toward fixing existing fencing and increasing technology and sensors; funding for 10 more immigration judges; more money for Customs and Border Patrol; even more loosened campaign finance disclosure requirements; slashing of food stamps (because of lower enrollment, Republicans say); freezing IRS funding; and cutting Department of Education funds.

But there are also things in the spending bill Democrats like (and Republicans don't): Planned Parenthood will not face cuts; science, arts, Pell Grants and Amtrak get increases; the Environmental Protection Agency is largely left intact (although Republicans like that it has the fewest employees since Reagan); the Justice Department is prevented from devoting extra money to stopping states from implementing their own marijuana laws; and e-cigarettes will be subjected to review by the Food and Drug Administration.

Mulvaney boasted that Trump, The Art of the Deal author, "outnegotiated" Democrats. And Mulvaney claimed of Democrats: "They wanted a shutdown. We know that. They were desperate to make this administration look like we couldn't function, like we couldn't govern."

Neither is true. Congressional Republicans and Democrats had been laying the groundwork, fairly collegially, for a funding bill for some time — before Trump decided to weigh in. And no congressional leaders were talking about a shutdown — not Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan, not Democratic Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. The only leader talking about and hyping one was Trump.

Still, Mulvaney lamented Democrats' behavior. "I don't anticipate a shutdown in September, but if the Democrats aren't going to behave any better than they have in the last couple of days, it may be inevitable," he threatened.

President Trump speaks in the Rose Garden of the White House during Tuesday's presentation of the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy to the Air Force Academy football team.
Susan Walsh / AP
President Trump speaks in the Rose Garden of the White House during Tuesday's presentation of the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy to the Air Force Academy football team.

Something happened Tuesday morning that set Trump off. Mulvaney said the president was "frustrated" that Democrats "went out there to spike the football and make him look bad."

The narrative had become that Democrats got a win and Trump took a loss. And for someone like Trump, who seems to view politics as a zero-sum game, that was a problem.

Still smarting from the emerging narrative Tuesday, Trump even used a celebratory event, the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy presentation to the Air Force Academy — a bunch of winners — as a platform to air his grievances.

After bragging that the bill increases military spending, Trump said, "And we didn't do any touting like the Democrats did, by the way."

That wasn't enough for Trump. He then veered into border funding and Obamacare subsidies.

"To top that, we achieved the single largest increase in border-security funding in 10 years," the president said. "So we have more money now for the border than we've gotten in 10 years. The Democrats didn't tell you that. They forgot. In their notes, they forgot to tell you that."

He claimed it was enough money to make a "down payment" on the border wall (which is not what the money is for). "I think they will go back and check their papers," Trump reiterated of Democrats.

And he wanted to be clear: "Make no mistake, we are beginning to build the wall."

He then threw out this head-scratcher, apparently blaming Democrats' desire to continue Obamacare subsidies on ... donors.

"Do you know what a donor is, fellas?" he told the gathered cadets. "You'll learn when you get a little older. You'll learn about donors. I used to be a donor. Used to get everything I wanted. This is what winning looks like."

And now he doesn't get everything he wants. That's what compromise looks like.

It's not entirely clear what or who Trump's trigger was Tuesday. A spending bill is a negotiation. No one gets everything he wants, but everyone tries to claim victory. That's politics.

Some of Trump's sensitivity might be a tacit acknowledgment that if there was a shutdown, Republicans would very likely be blamed, given they control Congress and the White House.

Taking blame and getting over losses isn't something Trump does well. He is always trying to spin his way out. Just a few months into office, Trump has done a lot of complaining about rules and results.

After the GOP health care bill failed, he called rules in the House and Senate "archaic." And that was after Republicans changed the rules of the Senate to get Trump's Supreme Court nominee through, his biggest accomplishment in his first 100 days. Republicans say the rule change was in response to Democrats' changing the rules for lower court nominees, but the lead-up to that was years (not months) in the making following record obstruction by Republicans.

Trump also claimed falsely — as president — that he really won the popular vote, despite losing it by approximately 3 million. He blamed it on "illegal" votes, something for which there is absolutely no evidence and has even been disputed by Republican secretaries of state.

All presidents want more unilateral power. George W. Bush and Barack Obama both lamented the Washington grind and alluded to dictatorships being easier.

But Trump seems OK with changing the rules when convenient, if not itching to do so, instead of playing by them.

The best presidents have figured out how to play the game, how to work within the system of the republic — one that was deliberately set up to check the powers of a presidency created on the heels of monarchical colonial rule.

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Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.