President Donald Trump speaks in the Rose Garden of the White House, Friday, Jan 25, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)

As U.S. air travel stalls, Trump agrees to halt shutdown temporarily

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump sounded a full retreat Friday in his border-wall war with Congress, agreeing to a three-week pause in the longest government shutdown in U.S. history just as the impact of the impasse was being felt by air travellers all over North America.

Trump said he has agreed to a continuing resolution that would open the funding taps and allow the government to reopen for three weeks. Government employees who continued to work without pay during the shutdown would receive back pay as soon as possible, including air-traffic controllers, whose escalating absenteeism Friday threw a wrench into airport operations.

Trump made the concession even thought the Democrats have not agreed to approve any funding for his $5.7-billion wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, a refusal that’s been at the heart of the shutdown dispute since it began Dec. 22.

The White House isn’t waving a white flag, Trump insisted, hinting that if the two sides can’t reach an agreement by the Feb. 15 deadline, he will declare a national emergency at the southern border. That is a legally questionable strategy that allows him to do an end-run around Congress and procure the funding through the Department of Defense.

“Let me be clear: we really have no choice but to build a wall or steel barrier,” said Trump.

After expressing his appreciation for the strength and sacrifices made by furloughed and unpaid employees, Trump used the bulk of his Rose Garden news conference to deliver a 15-minute tirade against the evils of illegal immigration and the virtues of a physical border barrier — evidence he’s concerned about how the decision will go over with his supporters.

Right-wing provocateur Ann Coulter wasted no time proving that concern to be well placed, likening Trump on Twitter to “the biggest wimp ever to serve as president of the United States.”

Friday’s climb-down came on a day of body-blow headlines for the president, including the arrest of self-described Trump campaign “dirty trickster” Roger Stone, a key figure in the ongoing Russia investigation, and the news that a shutdown-related shortage of air-traffic controllers had triggered a “ground stop” at one of America’s busiest airports. It was an ominous early-warning of the potential impact on North American air travel.

The airport situation played a role in the president’s decision, a White House official told CNN.

It was also the first evidence of the shutdown having a significant and widespread impact north of the border: several WestJet and Air Canada flights to New York’s LaGuardia Airport and Newark Liberty International in New Jersey were cancelled or delayed by as much as 90 minutes.

The Federal Aviation Administration confirmed a spike in sick calls, forcing it to summon other staff, reroute traffic and allow more space between flight departures.

“We are appreciative of the hard work and dedication of the men and women of the air traffic control system who assist in the safe movement of our aircraft each day,” said WestJet spokeswoman Lauren Stewart. “This is a most unfortunate situation that our ATC partners find themselves in and it’s our hope that the parties involved can resolve the situation as quickly as possible.”

Approval ratings, too, likely had a part to play.

On Thursday, a new Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs poll found only 34 per cent of respondents approved of Trump’s performance, down from 42 per cent the previous month and nearing the lowest of his presidency. And a Politico survey released earlier this week found 54 per cent of respondents were blaming Republicans for the shutdown, compared with 34 per cent who blamed Democrats.

Despite a clear victory that left the White House no further ahead than 35 days ago, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer kept their gloating to a minimum, conscious of the reality of three difficult weeks of negotiations that lie ahead.

“I don’t see this as any power play,” said Pelosi, who scored a political coup de grace last week when she pulled the plug on the president’s state of the union address, originally scheduled for Tuesday.

“If you’re saying that the president held out over wall funding to show who was in charge, I think that’s quite a bad statement to make about any leader in our country. What I do say is let’s go forward (and) get this done.”

As the dispute dragged on, the Democrat argument shifted away from blunt opposition to a border wall to the broader perils of creating a dangerous precedent with a notoriously petulant president — a point Schumer reiterated Friday.

“Hopefully, it means a lesson learned for the White House and for many of our Republican colleagues: shutting down the government over a policy difference is self-defeating,” Schumer said. “It accomplishes nothing but pain and suffering for the country and incurs enormous political cost to the party shutting it down.”

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