There's No Art to Trump's Dance With Democrats
There was much back-and-forth between the West Wing and Capitol Hill from Wednesday night into Thursday, involving immigration policy and that mythic Mexican border wall. The zigging and zagging could be described as many things, but it's probably best not to use President Donald Trump's favorite word. There's no "deal," not yet.
This is Trumplandia, after all. What generally goes on in that world is less about deal-making and more akin to a bumper car race in which participants take turns ramming one another for the entertainment of an important person watching from the stands.
Let's take a look:
On Thursday morning, Trump told reporters as he departed the White House for Florida that he was "working on a plan" — with his new Democratic friends in Congress, Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer — to protect immigrants who came to the U.S. as minors and had been allowed to remain in the country under former President Barack Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which Trump recently rescinded.
Trump's statement seemed to contradict his pre-dawn Twitter post in which he said that he, Pelosi and Schumer hadn't made a DACA "deal" the night before, when they dined together in the White House Blue Room:
Perhaps the president was testy when he wrote that tweet because Pelosi and Schumer, the House and Senate minority leaders, had crowed right after the dinner that they had, in fact, cut a deal. Their understanding was that Congress would be free to take up the DACA issue apart from funding for the Great Wall.
Trump's tweeting forced Pelosi and Schumer to try to clarify things Thursday morning, however, and they issued a joint statement in which they noted that there was no "final deal." Instead, they said, Trump had agreed to turn DACA protections into law while leaving border security for a later date.
Wait, wait, wait. That new statement didn't sound so different from what they had said the prior evening: “We agreed to enshrine the protections of DACA into law quickly, and to work out a package of border security, excluding the wall."
No worries, though. By repeating themselves Thursday morning, Pelosi and Schumer massaged the president's ego just enough, apparently, to get him back with the program. He offered up three more tweets that seemed to prove it:
For those who had trouble interpreting his intentions, Trump subsequently told reporters at the White House, "The wall will come later."
Then Air Force One landed in Florida and out stepped the president, who told reporters on the tarmac that even if DACA became law, the 800,000 or so immigrants protected by it would not become citizens — and a path to citizenship wouldn't be part of the negotiations, either.
That sure confused things, because Pelosi and Schumer thought their dinner "deal" involved eventual citizenship for DACA immigrants. (Actually, citizenship is part of a separate and older legislative proposal known as the DREAM Act and it applies to a larger group of at least 1.3 million people.)
Pelosi decided to rebut Trump's statement in Florida, saying she believed that her discussions with the president included "an understanding that down the road there is an eventual path to citizenship."
Did Pelosi and Schumer intentionally conflate DACA with the DREAM Act at dinner in the Blue Room and try to roll the president into supporting more sweeping changes? Who knows?
Did the president negotiate immigration policy with Pelosi and Schumer without really knowing the details? Who knows?
But Trump never has sweated details in his business life. He's never been intellectually sophisticated and he certainly hasn't been a student of public policy. So I would wager that the president doesn’t know the difference between DACA and the DREAM Act, but possibly got an earful from immigration hardliners on his flight down to Florida.
These are folks like Representative Steve King, an Iowa Republican, who warned Trump (via Twitter, where else?) that if the president abandoned the wall and protected young immigrants then his "base is blown up, destroyed, irreparable, and disillusioned beyond repair."
"No promise is credible," King declared.
There is a long line of people who could counsel King on the value of Trump's promises: the Pritzker family, who ended up dissolving their 1970s-era partnership with him after a falling out over the Grand Hyatt project in Manhattan; executives he recruited to his Atlantic City casinos in the 1980s and 1990s and then dumped; some of the investors and bankers who lost money with him; the vendors he didn't pay, and the workers who lost their jobs because of his mistakes.
Trump's tango with Pelosi and Schumer follows the successful partnership the trio formed last week when they outmaneuvered Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan and forged a short-term agreement to raise the federal debt ceiling and pay for hurricane relief.
But the GOP couldn't tolerate the government shutdown that would follow a debt-ceiling deadlock, or ignore hurricane victims in Texas and Florida, so Ryan and McConnell had little reason to oppose last week's deal.
The dynamics are different on immigration, though, as Ryan took pains to point out.
"I think the president knows he has to work with the congressional majorities to get any kind of legislative solution," the speaker said on Thursday.
Trump's recent willingness to slap around his own party, the ease with which he has stepped away from campaign promises on immigration, and the whiplash accompanying his messaging shifts has prompted the usual round of tortured explanations for his behavior.
Sean Hannity, the Fox News host and Trump apologist, blames McConnell and the GOP because they wanted Trump "to fail and now pushed him into the arms of political suicide" with Democrats.
Others have divined wily deal-making stratagems. "Trump teams up with Democrats as strategy evolves," a Fox Business headline advised.
All of this gives Trump more credit than he deserves. Sometimes confusion is just confusion.
Pelosi and Schumer can temporarily play Trump, but they shouldn't mistake a short-term deal for a lasting alliance. Ryan and McConnell might see him as a vessel for achieving their own goals, but that's transitory as well. Trump's voters and supporters might see him as a polestar, but beware.
Trump wants to appear to be outmaneuvering everyone else, and he wants press coverage that portrays him at the top of his game. So he'll take unpredictable stances on issues in hopes of receiving a compliment or two. Artful policymaking has nothing to do with it.
And none of this is deal-making. It's just pinball, a game Trump's always played.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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Jonathan Landman at email@example.com