Witcover: A president's first obligation

"Absolutely, I said that," said President Trump at a press conference when asked to confirm whether he said the ongoing government shutdown could last "months, or even a year, or longer."

President Trump, in his promise to "make America great again," appears to have forgotten his primary task: to keep the federal government running.

His blatant decision to shut down a major part of it in his determination to get his way on building that wall on our southern border, denying about 800,000 federal workers their weekly paychecks, may be the most heartless neglect of his presidential duties yet committed.


Adding insult to injury, he has said he is doing so because doing otherwise would make him look weak in the eyes of his political faithful. He says so while claiming that most of those workers not getting their paychecks support him on demanding the wall, without an iota of evidence.

It's what we have come to expect from this president who lies with the agility and the consistency of a bank robber caught holding a gun to a teller's head and declaring his innocence.

Furthermore, pay raises were going through for Vice President Mike Pence and some cabinet members even as those other federal workers were figuring out how to keep feeding their families.

Mr. Trump is basing winning his political face-off with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on getting Congress to pay for building that southern border wall. For a supposed expert in the art if the deal, it seems an unlikely outcome.

Ms. Pelosi has given no indication of giving in, for good reason. Before the midterm elections that restored her as speaker after eight years of Republican control of the House, Mr. Trump could have counted on GOP senators to reject any Democratic bill to keep Congress open.

Now he has to depend on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's partisan refusal to bring to the Senate floor that bill opening the government. It has been approved by Democrats and some Republicans in the House since the midterms. Mr. McConnell's refusal is reminiscent of his earlier blocking of a Senate vote on President Barack Obama's 2016 Supreme Court nomination of Judge Merrick Garland.

Republicans in Congress are now alleging that the new Democratic majority in the House is hell-bent on initiating impeachment charges against Mr. Trump, which constitutionally would have to begin there. Ms. Pelosi and other leading Democrats on Capitol Hill, however, are pointedly counseling caution, to await the ultimate findings of Justice Department Special Counsel investigations into Mr. Trump's campaign and business affairs.

In all the premature talk of impeachment and comparisons with the 1974 removal of President Richard Nixon from the Oval Office, it is often overlooked that Nixon never was impeached. He was however, listed at one point by a grand jury among unindicted co-conspirators in the investigation.

A "smoking gun" in the infamous Watergate tapes disclosed that Nixon had discussed bribing the burglars at the Democratic National Committee for their silence, and had agreed that acting FBI director L. Patrick Gray be told to lay off the Watergate investigation, as a matter of national security.

In the wake of the congressional committee inquiries into Watergate, Nixon was persuaded by GOP members Sen. Barry Goldwater and Rep. John Rhodes of Arizona and Hugh Scott of Pennsylvania to resign. They told him flatly that he lacked the votes to avoid impeachment.

Whether Donald Trump, if similarly faced with such an outcome, would select the same alternative might depend on whether family members involved in his presidency and businesses might also be in legal jeopardy.

Unlike Nixon's case, wherein Republican congressional leaders concluded he could not beat the rap in light of the White House Watergate tapes, no such consensus has yet developed on Mr. Trump's culpability in the current inquiries against him.

Only two GOP senators, Cory Gardner of Colorado and Susan Collins of Maine, voted with the Senate Democrats last week to open the government in defiance of Mr. Trump's shutdown. But as it drags on, already the longest shutdown in history, the Republicans' near-solidarity behind the president could change.

The self-described master of the art of the deal finds he doesn't hold the strongest poker hand in this game, as federal workers continue to go without their regular paychecks. The old song says, "You gotta know when to hold 'em, and know when to fold 'em." Does Donald Trump know?


Jules Witcover's latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power," published by Smithsonian Books. You can respond to this column at