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Robinson: Pelosi is schooling Trump, but he's a slow learner

WASHINGTON -- Contrary to legend, Marie Antoinette probably never actually said "let them eat cake." The Trump administration is saying it loud and clear, though, to government workers who have now gone more than a month without a paycheck.

"I don't really quite understand why" unpaid employees are resorting to food pantries and other forms of charity, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross told CNBC on Thursday. They should just take out loans from banks or credit unions to pay for necessities, he advised. Of course they'd have to pay some interest, but "there's no reason why some institution wouldn't be willing to lend."

Ross, who is a billionaire, should try supporting a family on less than $45,000 a year, like most Transportation Security Administration airport agents do. He would be shocked to learn that banks do not treat every prospective borrower the same. "Where is the red carpet? Why are rose petals not being strewn in my path? What do you mean by 'no'?"

At least Ross didn't advise unpaid employees to do what President Trump did whenever his real-estate schemes threatened to collapse in ruin: Borrow millions of dollars from Dad.

Meanwhile, National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow told a reporter that federal employees who are being forced to work without pay are "volunteering." The truth is, of course, that if they don't work, they will lose their jobs.

This is the heartless, clueless worldview with which Republicans in Congress have aligned themselves. They demonstrate no sympathy whatsoever for the 800,000 government employees -- plus hundreds of thousands of contract workers -- who are being made to suffer because Trump does not understand how the Constitution works.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is teaching the president, but he's a slow learner.

Trump got his latest lesson Wednesday when he sent Pelosi a letter arrogantly demanding that he be allowed to deliver his State of the Union address next Tuesday in the House chamber as originally scheduled. He was, in effect, daring Pelosi to follow through on her threat to postpone the speech until the government was reopened.

Pelosi's response reminded me of another San Francisco enforcer, the fictional Dirty Harry, who told miscreants: "Make my day." She gave Trump formal notice that she will not take the formal steps necessary to arrange the speech, period until the shutdown is over. End of discussion.

Trump grumbled about how Pelosi -- "or Nancy, as I call her" -- "doesn't want ... the American people to hear the truth," and he had made defiant noises about giving the speech in some alternate venue. But finally, he crumpled like a cheap suit, accepting Pelosi's decision that the address will take place after the shutdown ends. That's "her prerogative," he acknowledged.

Just as he threatened not to surrender over the speech, Trump insists he will never cave on his demand that Congress give him $5.7 billion for a border wall. As I said, he's a slow learner. A deal that would let him claim some measure of victory has always been available. The only question is how much more political damage he wants to do to himself and his party before he takes it.

Leading Democrats have strongly indicated that they are willing to give Trump $5.7 billion for "border security." Some portion of that money could be vaguely earmarked for barriers and fencing - allowing Trump to tell his base that Congress gave him money for his border wall, and Democrats to say they did no such thing.

This would be a great deal for Trump because -- and I can't say this often enough -- the "big, beautiful wall" that he ridiculously promised during the campaign is totally unfeasible and will never be built, much less paid for by Mexico. And it would be a great deal for the president because the Constitution gives Congress, not the president, the power to decide how public money is spent.

All Trump is accomplishing with the shutdown is to send his approval numbers lower, even as measured by friendly pollsters such as Rasmussen. And if the government remains closed much longer, he will be hanging millstones around the necks of Republican senators who must run for re-election in 2020.

The fact that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has emerged from hiding tells me that he's ready to end this farce. He should start by explaining to Trump that the president doesn't always get his way -- and that instead of referring to Pelosi as "Nancy," he really ought to try "Madam Speaker."

Eugene Robinson's email address is