President Donald Trump clashed with top Democrats over funding for a border wall during a meeting in the Oval Office on Dec. 11, as television cameras captured a rare, dramatic display of tensions that usually play out in negotiations behind closed doors.
Addressing Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Trump again threatened to shut down the government unless Democrats agree to provide $5 billion in funding for a wall on the U.S.–Mexico border.
“I am proud to shut down the government for border security, Chuck, because the people of this country don’t want criminals and people that have lots of problems and drugs pouring into our country,” Trump said, toward the end of the public portion of the heated meeting.
“I will take the mantle. I will be the one to shut it down. I’m not going to blame you for it. The last time you shut it down, it didn’t work.”
“But we believe you shouldn’t shut it down,” Schumer responded.
Trump’s border-wall proposal is part of a government funding bill, which, if not passed by Congress, would result in a partial government shutdown. While a border wall is Trump’s signature campaign promise, he has been unable to secure the necessary funding, because spending bills require 60 votes in the Senate to pass.
Republicans hold a slim 51–49 majority in the Senate, so Democratic support is needed to meet the 60-vote threshold.
Pelosi said that Republicans should push the measure through the House to “set the tone for what we want.”
“You have the White House, you have the Senate, you have the House of Representatives. You have the votes,” Pelosi said.
“No, we don’t have the votes, because, in the Senate, we need 60 votes,” Trump responded.
The top Democrats also disagreed with Trump on the assertion that he has the votes for a wall in the House.
“There are no votes in the House, the majority votes, for a wall,” Pelosi said.
“That’s exactly right,” Schumer responded.
“If I needed the votes for the wall in the House, I would have them in one session, we’d be done. It doesn’t help because we need 10 Democrats in the Senate,” Trump said.
Both Schumer and Pelosi, at different points during the meeting, said that the debate should be held in private.
“Let’s call a halt to this,” Pelosi said, amid the bickering.
“It’s not bad, Nancy. It’s called transparency,” Trump responded.
Vice President Mike Pence sat silently beside Trump. Senior White House staff watched the argument from the corners of the room, among them Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, outgoing chief of staff John Kelly, immigration adviser Stephen Miller, and legislative director Shahira Knight.
Schumer and Trump exchanged rare face-to-face zingers.
“Elections have consequences, Mr. President,” Schumer said.
“And that’s why the country is doing so well,” Trump responded.
The president cited several statistics on border crossings in areas were barriers are deployed, all showing an above 90 percent decrease in illegal crossings. Schumer argued that border security can be accomplished out without a border wall.
Trump also reiterated a plan to use the military to build the wall if Democrats fail to fund it. The president has ordered the National Guard and the military to the border to assist border patrol agents.
Schumer and Pelosi offered to extend current funding levels for border security at $1.3 billion, far short of the $5 billion Trump is demanding.
After the cameras were ushered out of the Oval Office, the trio met in private. After the meeting, Pelosi told reporters she thought the Democrats had left things “in a pretty good place,” adding that she had prayed with Trump during the private session, recounting the biblical story of King Solomon asking God for wisdom.
The White House, in a statement about the meeting, said that “major disagreement remains on the issue of border security and transparency.” White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said the president was glad to let the media witness the negotiations, so the public could see that “while Republicans are fighting to protect our border, Democrats are fighting to protect illegal immigrants.”
“We will continue to pursue real solutions to defend our nation and uphold our laws—and hope Democrats will work with us in a bipartisan fashion to do so,” Sanders said. “A nation without borders is no nation at all.”
Reuters contributed to this report.