WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump told Democratic leaders in a remarkable on-camera clash he would be "proud" to shut down the federal government if he doesn’t get the $5 billion he demands for a border wall with Mexico.
“If we don’t get what we want ... we will shut down the government," Trump said during an exchange in the Oval Office with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.
Pelosi and Schumer gave as good as they got, telling Trump he lacks support for border wall funding – even while Republicans still control the House – and is irresponsible in threatening to halt the government over a project that would be ineffective at best.
"You don't have the votes," Pelosi said.
Trump wants $5 billion for a border wall as part of a government funding bill, contending the barrier would stop criminals and drug dealers from entering the country. Democrats said they're not budging on the $1.6 billion in border security funding included in the Senate bill already negotiated by Democrats and Republicans.
Most immigrants don't hop a fence and aren't convicted of crimes, according to studies. About half of the estimated 11.4 million undocumented immigrants in 2012 overstayed their visas, according to the Department of Homeland Security. Among those, about 820,000 had criminal convictions, according to a study by the Migration Policy Institute based on department figures of immigrants who could be removed for criminal records.
If Trump and lawmakers can't agree on a budget bill by midnight Dec. 21, the government could see a partial shutdown.
After the adversarial meeting, Schumer said Trump's "temper tantrum" won't "get him his wall." Pelosi referred to the prospective closure of agencies as a “Trump shutdown."
“I asked him to pray over it" in search of a budget agreement, she said.
During the meeting, which featured finger-pointing, arm-waving and raised voices, Trump, Pelosi and Schumer argued their positions.
Though Trump argued mostly with Pelosi, Schumer chimed in to tell the president he shouldn’t threaten to shut down the government “because you can’t get your way.”
Trump said Pelosi is "in a situation where it’s not easy to talk right now” because she is trying to win votes to become speaker when the new House meets next month.
Pelosi countered Trump: “Please don’t characterize the strength that I bring to this meeting."
During the heated argument, Trump said, “I am proud to shut down the government” over his wall.
"I'll be the one to shut it down," he said. "I will take the mantle. And I will shut it down for border security."
Vice President Mike Pence sat stoned-faced throughout the exchange.
Hours later, Trump described his session with Pelosi and Schumer as "very friendly." He said he didn't mind the idea of "owning" a possible shutdown. “If we have to close down the country (over) border security, I actually like that in terms of an issue,” he said.
On Capitol Hill, Schumer called on Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to persuade Trump to sign off on one of two budget plans on the table. Schumer said Democrats would be willing to sit down and talk to Trump again, but “you heard the president – he wants a shutdown."
McConnell said he hasn’t given up hope that a government shutdown can be avoided.
“I’m sort of hoping for a Christmas miracle here, that we’ll have a level of cooperation that we don’t normally have,” he said.
The fight could be a sign of things to come for the president. Pelosi and the Democrats will take control of the House next month and are sure to oppose many Trump ideas with the same kind of vehemence.
Veteran Washington observers said they had never seen such a spectacle as the Oval Office argument, at least not on television.
"There have been arguments between POTUS and visiting Congressional leaders but the tradition has usually been to avoid doing it before TV cameras," presidential historian Michael Beschloss said in an email.
Democrats expressed surprise that Trump would claim ownership of a government shutdown over such a disputed policy as the border wall. "Trump has boxed himself in as bad as any president ever has done," said Jim Manley, a former Democratic leadership aide.
Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, said he has worked with eight presidents – Democrats and Republicans – during his 44 years in Congress, but “this is the only time I’ve seen anything as irresponsible as a president saying he wants a government shutdown.”
Some Republicans said they were happy with the way Trump stood up for the wall.
"I don't think the president is bluffing, I think he's serious as four heart attacks and a stroke, and I think he's prepared to shut it down,” Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., said after a caucus meeting with the vice president at the Capitol. “I think he believes, as I do, that walls work.”
Schumer and Pelosi visited the Oval Office less than two weeks before some government departments and agencies will run out of money. The session had been scheduled for last week but was delayed because of the state funeral of former President George H.W. Bush.
Trump, in a tweet Tuesday morning, said “the Military will build the remaining sections of the Wall” if Democrats don’t provide support for it.
The Pentagon has no plans to construct the wall, according to Army Lt. Col. Jamie Davis, a spokesman.
“To date, there is no plan to build sections of the wall,” Davis said in a statement.
However, it does have authority from Congress to build barriers on the border in support of counter-drug operations or national emergencies, Davis said.
Where the legislation stands
A short-term spending bill that has kept the government operating expired last Friday, but lawmakers passed a two-week extension to buy them more time to negotiate.
Congress has passed five spending bills for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1, but seven others await congressional action.
The bills that need approval would fund the Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Justice, Homeland Security, Interior, State, Transportation and Housing and Urban Development, as well as several smaller agencies.
Those are the departments and agencies that would be affected if there was a partial government shutdown.
Border security funding remains the major sticking point in passing the remaining spending bills.
Building a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border was one of Trump’s pivotal promises during the 2016 presidential campaign. Though he said repeatedly that Mexico would pay for the wall, Trump demands that Congress provide full funding to erect the barrier.
House Republicans backed Trump’s call for the funding. The House Appropriations Committee approved the spending in July. A bipartisan Senate bill earmarked $1.6 billion for border security.
Schumer has been adamant that Democrats will not provide the full $5 billion for the wall. What’s more, the $1.6 billion the Senate earmarked could not be used to construct any part of a border wall, Schumer said last week, adding that the money could be spent only on fencing where necessary and for technology deployed at the border.
Pelosi, who is likely to become House speaker when Democrats retake the majority in that chamber in January, suggested last week that lawmakers pass six of the remaining spending bills and continue to fund Homeland Security at current levels, including $1.3 billion for border security.
Four Senate Republicans introduced legislation that they said would fully fund Trump’s wall.
The legislation is unlikely to gain any traction.
What's the status of the wall?
Border barriers have been built under the Trump administration.
Those barriers are mostly replacements of other fencing that was in place – not new stretches of wall on any part of the border that was previously open.
None of the new barriers uses the designs that emerged from the construction of prototype walls in San Diego.
Funding for the barriers is limited to older designs, essentially the same fences built under previous administrations.
All of these projects amount to a few miles of border barrier in total. A USA TODAY Network project in 2017 examined the entire 2,000-mile border and showed most of it has no fence and no wall.
Helicopter footage of the full border shows most of it is open, and most of the barriers in Texas are built only in short spurts. Much of the unfenced border is remote, wild and distant from roads or construction supplies.
Apprehensions of border crossers rose in the past year, but the numbers remain near the lowest levels in decades.
Contributing: Bart Jansen and Tom Vanden Brook, USA TODAY, and The Arizona Republic