“Since Chuck and Nancy keep stonewalling the President, we’ll send the wall to them, brick by brick, until they agree to secure the border!” wrote Trump’s campaign manager, Brad Parscale.
It didn’t matter that the bricks are really “faux” bricks, or that Trump has said the border barrier will now be made out of steel, or that it is not just to send a message to Democrats but a way to raise money for his reelection campaign. The cost to send one brick: $20.20. Get it?
This week has been chock-full of these moments of political theater, staged events and actions ostensibly to achieve some sort of a breakthrough in the shutdown fight. On Monday, there was Trump’s fast-food photo op, meant to show how he was making up for the shutdown’s impact on White House event catering.
On Tuesday and Wednesday, a group of Democratic freshmen trekked to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office to request a meeting, and some members even went to places throughout the Capitol, documenting their search on social media with the hashtag #WheresMitch. On Wednesday, Schumer and other Senate Democrats paraded down the steps of the Capitol with poster-sized portraits of government workers affected by the shutdown.
By midweek, Politico’s Playbook dubbed it the “theatrical shutdown,” but that was hardly the end of it.
On Thursday, the White House released a letter in which Trump informed Pelosi that he was cancelling her planned trip to Brussels and Afghanistan, a response to her request that they delay the planned Jan. 29 State of the Union as long as the government was still shut down.
The previously undisclosed trip was to include other congressional Democrats, some of whom had already boarded an Air Force bus ready to take them on a government aircraft. Instead, reporters swarmed the bus, parked outside the House steps, as the lawmakers disembarked.
Do all these episodes make a difference? Probably not, even as alarms are sounded about the hundreds of thousands of federal workers furloughed or going without pay.
But with the shutdown entering its second month next week, they do keep a certain segment engaged on the issue. Polls in the past week show that Trump has been getting most of the blame for the shutdown, and he has been engaged in a relentless effort to put public pressure on Democrats.
“Clever, light-hearted and catchy political theater and stunts have their place, but I don’t think these tactics are doing much to move the public debate this time around,” said Michael Steel, partner at Hamilton Place Strategies and former press secretary for House Speaker John Boehner. “Both sides seem dug in and determined to appeal to their political base.”
In fact, there is no end in sight to the shutdown. The tension between Trump and Pelosi only worsened on Friday, after she claimed that he not only canceled her overseas trip but that the White House leaked details of plans to instead fly commercially. Such arrangements to travel to war zones are usually kept confidential for security reasons.
“We weren’t going to go because we had a report from Afghanistan that the President, outing our trip, had made the scene on the ground much more dangerous,” Pelosi told reporters. Asked whether she thought Trump was doing this out of retaliation for her State of the Union request, she said, “I would hope not. I don’t think the President would be that petty, do you?”
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Pelosi’s accusation was “unbecoming,” adding that it was “outrageous that she would accuse the president of the United States of putting any life in jeopardy.”
A Politico/Morning Consult poll on Thursday showed that 66% of respondents said the shutdown had little or no impact on them or their families, roughly in line with some other surveys. That could begin to change as the shutdown starts to be measured in weeks and perhaps even months, not days. This week, there were reports that lawmakers were grumbling about the shutdown’s potential impact on security at the Super Bowl, scheduled for Feb. 3 in Atlanta, and traditionally the most-watched TV event of the year.
Meanwhile, the Trump campaign’s Parscale relished in the attention, claiming that the send-the-brick campaign had brought in a record first hour of donations and new donors.
One reporter asked about the strategy behind another feature of the send-the-brick campaign, in which users are directed to text the word “Wall” to a number. Pascale responded, “You reporters. It is on there because of all you can’t help yourselves but talk crap and write about it. So thank you for thousands and thousands of cell phones without paying your networks a dime.”