Why Trump Could Keep Making Deals With Democrats

Trump’s reach across the aisle has more to do with his anger at GOP lawmakers than any policy shift toward the center.

Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer speaks as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi looks on during a news conference at the U.S. Capitol.

Photographer: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

President Donald Trump’s surprise decision to accept a Democratic debt-limit deal offered by Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi drew a strangely consistent response from both Democrats and Republicans. By and large, they declared it a one-off deal that doesn’t herald any likelihood of further bipartisan cooperation down the line. Nothing to see here, folks—move along.

Partisans of each stripe had their reasons for rushing to minimize the significance of the deal. Republicans don’t want to admit they’ve been sold down the river by a president who cares little about advancing conservative causes. Having endured countless indignities in supporting Trump in hopes that he’d advance their agenda, they aren’t ready to accept their president’s willingness to torch their bargaining leverage and take up the other side’s priorities. 

Democrats can’t bear to say anything positive about a man they’ve consistently painted as a monster, for fear that doing so would “normalize” Trump and thus undermine their criticisms of his other actions, from terrorizing undocumented immigrants to giving sustenance to Charlottesville’s racist marchers. They’ve also had front-row seats to watch as Trump pulled the rug out from under Republicans who thought they could count on him. Add to this the aggressive thought-policing by liberal pundits and social media figures who heap scorn and derision on anyone who dares suggest that Trump’s actions could mark a change.

And yet … everything we know about Trump suggests his eager acceptance of the Democrats’ debt deal may indeed signify a new approach. So does his recent dinner schedule. On Sept. 12, Trump hosted three key Democratic senators at a White House dinner aimed at winning their support for a tax overhaul. The next day, Trump invited Pelosi and Schumer to dine with him at the White House, where they plan to lobby the president on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA) and on stabilizing Obamacare.  

Before I go on, let me fortify my deflector shields against partisan attacks by first stipulating a few things: I’m not suggesting Trump is “pivoting” to the center or forsaking his old beliefs for new ones. I don’t pretend that a process of deep introspection has convinced Trump of the error of his ways. I don’t think he’s suddenly morphed into a “normal” politician. And I’m certainly not claiming that Trump is engaged in some sort of clever, 3D chess that mere mortals cannot hope to understand. 

Rather, Trump is likely to pursue further deals with Democrats not out of any positive inclination toward bipartisanship, but because he’s driven by growing negative sentiment toward his own party. And we have lots of evidence of how Trump behaves when he’s angry.

A White House adviser familiar with the Schumer-Pelosi meeting told me this was obvious when Trump cut off his own Treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, in midpitch as he was making the case for a lengthier debt deal than the three-month extension the Democrats were pushing for. Knowing that Mnuchin prefers to be called “Steven,” not “Steve,” Trump abruptly halted his sales pitch by saying, “Hey Steve, hold on” — and then accepted the competing proposal from Schumer and Pelosi.

The move was a slap at the Republican leaders, Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan, both present at the meeting, for consistently failing to deliver enough Republican votes to pass legislation and sullying Trump’s image as a dealmaker. Trump was driven by spite more than policy preference. And because Republican leaders will continue to have difficulty marshaling majorities, because of their rebellious right flank, the claim that Trump’s deal with Democrats is an aberration is probably wrong.

Trump’s former chief strategist, Steve Bannon, conveyed precisely this fear when he told Charlie Rose on Sunday’s 60 Minutes that he feared a looming GOP civil war over the price Democrats will likely exact to raise the debt ceiling come December: the legalization of DACA, which would permit 800,000 undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children to remain.

“I’m worried about losing the House,” Bannon confessed, “because of DACA. And my fear is that with this six months down range … if this goes all the way down to its logical conclusion, in February and March it will be a civil war inside the Republican party that will be every bit as vitriolic as 2013. And to me, doing that in the springboard of primary season for 2018 is extremely unwise.”

The “logical conclusion” Bannon alludes to is his fear that Trump will agree to join Democrats and legalize DACA when Republicans can’t muster the votes to pass a bill of their own. He’s probably right. And if the Trump-Democrat formula for dealmaking pays off for him once again, why wouldn’t Trump keep going?

The problem for Republicans is that there isn’t an easy solution to their dilemma, since they’re too divided to exploit their congressional majorities. This ensures that Trump’s anger is unlikely to ebb. For now, they can ignore the likely consequences of his unhappiness and dismiss the Schumer-Pelosi deal as a fluke. But it probably won’t be a fluke, not because Trump has undergone some big change, but because he hasn’t.

    Joshua Green
    Bloomberg Businessweek Columnist
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