WASHINGTON — At first, he vowed to “take the mantle” for closing part of the federal government. Then he blamed Democrats, saying they “now own the shutdown.” By Friday, President Trump was back to owning it again. “I’m very proud of doing what I’m doing,” he declared.
Two weeks into the showdown over a border wall, Mr. Trump is now crafting his own narrative of the confrontation that has come to consume his presidency. Rather than a failure of negotiation, the shutdown has become a test of political virility, one in which he insists he is receiving surreptitious support from unlikely quarters.
Not only are national security hawks cheering him on to defend a porous southern border, but so too are former presidents who he says have secretly confessed to him that they should have done what he is doing. Not only do federal employees accept being furloughed or forced to work without wages, they have assured him that they would give up paychecks so that he can stand strong.
Never mind how implausible such assertions might seem. The details do not matter to Mr. Trump as much as dominating the debate. After an oddly quiescent holiday season in which he complained via Twitter about being left at home alone — “poor me” — he has taken the public stage this week clearly intent on framing the conflict on his own terms.
People close to the president described him as emboldened since members of Congress returned to Washington after the break, giving him not only a clear target to swing at but helping him focus on a fight that he is convinced is a political winner. One aide said Mr. Trump believes he has gained the upper hand in the public battle.
Although surveys at first showed more Americans blaming him for the shutdown than Democrats, later polling showed the fault more evenly split. And the voters he cares most about, his core conservative supporters, are more enthusiastic than the public at large. He has told people that “my people” love the fight, and that he believes he is winning.
In the past three days, Mr. Trump has appeared in public three times to get his version of the story out while Democrats celebrated their takeover of the House. At a lengthy cabinet meeting on Wednesday, an appearance with border patrol union leaders on Thursday and a news conference with Republican congressional leaders in the Rose Garden on Friday, he engaged in quintessentially Trumpian stream of conscious discussions that ranged widely and unpredictably.
At one point, he argued that the Soviet Union was right to invade Afghanistan in 1979 to stop terrorists, a revisionist version that provoked a strong reaction in Kabul and earned a sharp rebuke from the often supportive editorial page of The Wall Street Journal, which said, “We cannot recall a more absurd misstatement of history by an American President.”
At another point, Mr. Trump mocked India for doing no more in Afghanistan than building a library, which generated headlines in New Delhi about the “jab” at its prime minister, not to mention more head scratching because, according to Indian news media, the country has not built a library in Afghanistan in many years.
He repeatedly claimed that the new trade agreement he has negotiated with Mexico and Canada means that Mexico really is paying for the wall, even though the pact has yet to be approved by Congress and has no direct connection to border security. He has made misleading claims about how many terrorists might be coming across the border.
Mr. Trump’s version of events differed even from the other people in the room at Friday’s meeting at the White House. When Democratic congressional leaders emerged after two hours, they described a “contentious” session with no meaningful progress as the president threatened to keep the government closed for “months or even years.” When Mr. Trump emerged shortly afterward, he described a “very, very productive meeting” and predicted the standoff could be “fixed very quickly.”
Two people briefed on the meeting said that White House officials viewed the conversation as the first civil discussion that had taken place between the two sides, and it left some of Mr. Trump’s aides hopeful. Indeed, Mr. Trump made a point of publicly saying nothing but relatively positive things about the Democrats on Friday.
Optimistic that a deal really is within reach, the president said he would have Vice President Mike Pence; Kirstjen Nielsen, the homeland security secretary; and Jared Kushner, his son-in-law and senior adviser, meet with Democrats over the weekend.
But there were questions about his own side of the aisle. Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the majority leader, unlike other congressional Republican leaders, was not present for the Rose Garden news conference. “He’s running the Senate,” Mr. Trump explained, even though the Senate had adjourned hours earlier and Mr. McConnell’s spokesman said the senator did not know about the news conference.
The president nonetheless was feeling energized by support he said he had received for the fight — including the very federal employees who are not being paid as a result of the partial shutdown.
“A lot of people that you think are upset — and certainly they’re not thrilled — but they say, ‘Sir, do the right thing, we need border security,’” Mr. Trump said. “And these are people that won’t be getting paid.”
As for his predecessors, he said, “This should have been done by all of the presidents that preceded me, and they all know it. Some of them have told me that we should have done it.”
By all public accounts, Mr. Trump had not spoken with his living predecessors since his inauguration until former President George Bush died last month. Mr. Trump called Mr. Bush’s son, former President George W. Bush, to offer condolences, but the subject of the wall did not come up, according to Mr. Bush’s office. A few days later, at the elder Mr. Bush’s funeral, Mr. Trump encountered his predecessors for the first time since taking office, but he sat quietly without talking with them during the service.
The younger Mr. Bush built miles of wall and fencing along the Mexico line while he was president, but said it could not cover the entire border and insisted that enforcement should be coupled with an overhaul of immigration law to permit many people in the country illegally to stay. Former President Barack Obama has repeatedly criticized Mr. Trump’s proposed wall, and former President Jimmy Carter has said technological improvements would be more effective at protecting the border.
The White House did not say afterward which presidents Mr. Trump was referring to, but a senior administration official said he was probably referring to public comments his predecessors have made about the need for border security, not necessarily for a wall specifically.
As he careened this week from subject to subject and assertion to assertion, an energized Mr. Trump seemed to be enjoying himself. He went on for more than an hour and a half on Wednesday and another hour on Friday.
“Should we keep this going or not, folks?” he asked reporters at one point before noticing that it was a cold January day in the Rose Garden.
“Should we keep this going a little bit longer?” he asked again. “Let me know when you get tired.”
One thing Mr. Trump was not was tired.