Behind the Government Shutdown

The Oral History of the 2018–2019 Government Shutdown

Two normal guys, hanging out.

Since rule changes to the appropriations process were enacted in 1976 there have been twenty-two Federal Government Shutdowns, many of which occurred thanks to legitimate governmental quirks. Some lasted only a few days while others stretched weeks, and until the battle between Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich in 1995, a shutdown that lasted twenty-one days, most were solved quickly and with some level of regret. During the Clinton-Gingrich flame war, however, “Government Shutdown” became a term synonymous with partisan politics and tribal warfare and has since morphed into a cudgel for emboldened politicians and Presidents to use against the other side. No shutdown has encapsulated the highly partisan nature of this newfound tool, nor the divisive aspects of our political climate like the current one, though. It began in late December, with President Donald Trump’s endless quest for a Border Wall going unfulfilled and soon it divided the country like nothing else in the first years of his Presidency. With a lightning rod in Trump, a callow, feckless GOP Senate and a willing resistance in the emboldened Democratic Congress, this shutdown is on a collision course with history, steamrolling into 2019 with no end in sight. But how did we get here? And where do we go from here? This is the Oral History of the 2018–2019 Federal Government Shutdown.


Donald Trump (45th President): One thing I always say is, and I always say this, is that you have to have walls. Have to have walls. Outside a house, inside a house, doesn’t matter. Gotta have walls. And Obama, he has walls. Nancy Pelosi, she lives inside a wall that’s inside another wall. Everybody, they have walls, and now they don’t want walls. It’s funny how that works.

Nancy Pelosi (Speaker of the House): Before the shutdown, Chuck and I went to the White House and Trump said to us “I will own this shutdown” — well, he isn’t owning it now. He’s blaming us and hundreds of thousands of Americans are being held hostage because of it.

Trump: I don’t know if you’ve heard but people are saying Nancy has a very serious caffeine problem. Very serious. Caffeinated Nancy, they’re calling her. She loves to enhance things, enhance things. I never said it was my shutdown. I said it was their shutdown, but I called it my shutdown because it was a shutdown that I wanted to give them, because they don’t care about security. They love criminals. Love them.

Chuck Schumer (Senate Minority Leader): Let me play this tape for you.

(tape plays, Trump speaks) “I am proud to shut down the government over the wall.”

Trump: That’s not me and that’s not my voice. Not my voice. That sounds like a sick person or something. These people are sick.

Mike Pence (Vice President): I was in the meeting and I can tell you unequivocally, that things were said and not said. I was there.

Pelosi: Ultimately Donald Trump and the Republican Party own this shutdown. Mitch (McConnell) could take our bill and vote on it and take it to Trump and force his hand. But he won’t. They won’t.

Mitch McConnell (Senate Majority Leader): Forgive me for eating during this. (McConnell eats two heads of lettuce at very slow speeds during his interview). Nancy is right. We won’t vote on any bill that doesn’t include spending for a wall. It would be pointless if the President is just going to veto it anyway. I always say: we in the Senate like to do things that lead to progress.

Schumer: One thing is for sure: there will be no vote for any bill that includes $5.7 billion dollars for a wall. None. A few billion less, maybe. Not $5.7. No way.


With a stalemate in place and no solution on the horizon, Trump is in a precarious place: push forward with the shutdown and alienate hundreds of thousands of federal workers, ultimately leading to unrest, or alienate his base and ultimately lead to unrest. Two weeks into the shutdown, Trump audibles and calls for a televised Oval Office address.

Trump: I wanted to talk to the people. The people love me, many of the people, actually, I don’t know if you know this but I had one of the great, one of the great, election vic — (tape recorder cuts off).

Mick Mulvaney (Acting Chief of Staff to the President, Director, Office of Budget and Management): President Trump came to me one morning in the White House cafeteria with a turkey leg in his hand and just said “T.V.” and walked away and I knew he wanted to address the nation.

Sarah Huckabee Sanders (White House Press Secretary): The President has very specific policies in place and goals he wants to achieve and one of those goals is building a wall for the safety and security of this country.

Trump: The bottom line is, the United States is the greatest country on earth. Did you know that in India everyone wears American Flags — they wear them everywhere, entire flags, and their Prime Minister, Moody, Moody, he calls me an- (tape recorder cuts off again).

Bill Shine (White House Deputy Communication Director): We used to have a saying at Fox News, “If you’re not grabbing the pussy, then you are the pussy”, and that is so, so true. And this President is doing that. He’s grabbing this country, and he’s taking it with him.

Jared Kushner (Senior Advisor): It’s true that the President can be forceful, and can be a great salesman, but one thing I always tell him is: connect. But ultimately he decides what to do.

Mulvaney: We spent a lot of time prepping for this address. Thirty, forty minutes. And it worked. Myself, Bill, Jared, Stephen.

Stephen Miller (Special Advisor to the President): President Trump and I have a deep connection. Almost visceral, possibly even more than that, but definitely something deep. We get each other, OK? The wall isn’t just a wall; it’s a symbol. It means so much to so many people.

Trump: Quite frankly I don’t really give a shit about the wall. But I said it during the campaign and people loved it and now I’m really, really screwed if it doesn’t get built.

Huckabee Sanders: I think what the President is trying to say is: he made a promise, and he’s going to keep that promise.


On the evening of January 8th, President Trump made the first Oval Office address of his Presidency, spending ten minutes discussing the need for a border wall and trying to assure a weary nation that he knew what he was doing.

Shine: We really thought he connected with the people on this one. Grabbed ‘em, tossed ‘em, chucked ‘em, fucked ‘em.

Mulvaney: I think what Bill is saying is, every type of voter was happy with the address.

Sheri Perkins (Trump voter): Honestly I wasn’t watching it. I was playing Candy Crush.

Harrison Buckworth (Trump voter): I mean I guess I want the wall? The tax cut was really all I cared about, and we got that.

Sean Hannity (Fox News Host): His address was one of the great moments in American history. Liberals were cowering. Illegals were running back to their countries.

Rachel Maddow (MSNBC Host): His address was terrible. It sounded like some racist uncle’s Thanksgiving dinner rant.

Trump: Many people said after the address it was one of the great, great moments. Maybe the greatest moment. They call me Lincoln, they call me Jackson, but you don’t hear that because the Fake News only reports the bad things. But we probably fixed the shutdown because of this address.

McConnell: Frankly, the address only made things worse.


With a mixed bag of reviews flowing in for his Oval Office address, Trump was forced to hit the “campaign trail”, so to speak, and walk the alleys of power in D.C. in attempts to glad-hand his way into victory. The following day he led meetings with GOP and Democratic leadership.

Kevin McCarthy (House Minority Leader): If this is off the record, I will tell you that this guy is a complete fucking moron and runs the risk of destroying our party and this country. Oh, it’s not? Well I think the Democrats have done a really terrible, very immature thing here trying to block this wall.

Pelosi: The speech was terrible. And then he shows up to the Capitol to smooth things over and what does he do? He eats a plate full of glazed donuts during the meeting, and doesn’t say a word. Pence did the talking.

Pence: I just said: I’m here, we’re here, the situation is the situation. And that is the situation.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (Democratic Congresswoman): Can anyone really look at this situation and think “this is good”? Because I look at it and I think, you know what we need more than anything? To get rid of this asshole.

Paul Ryan (Amateur Bodybuilder, former Congressman): There’s something so American about a speech like the one the President gave, it was real- (Editors note: A 600lb dumbbell fell onto Mr. Ryan during this interview).

Schumer: Somebody needs to ask Mitch McConnell what he’s doing about this because right now he’s the only person who can fix this. The President isn’t going to. He’s somewhere watching wrestling videos.

Trump: Many, many people say wrestling is maybe the greatest sport.

Pelosi: Mitch owns this shutdown just as much as Trump.

McConnell: (Eating more lettuce) But who owns me? Because if you can answer that question, then you’ll figure it all out.