Knowing the details of policy helps when cutting a legislative deal in
Washington. On Wednesday, Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer left the White
House with the outlines of a breathtakingly excellent deal for their
party. The key to their victory was knowing more than Donald Trump does about
immigration policy. And that same distinction may end up scuttling
But, for the moment, the Trump romance with the Democratic leaders seems
real. It’s worth being skeptical about how long the affair will last.
Trump is mercurial, gets frustrated easily with new negotiating
partners, and is not known for keeping his word. But Pelosi and Schumer
seem to be exploiting a brief window of opportunity in which two major
changes have occurred.
The first is the circumstances at the White House. Steve Bannon,
the most important internal agitator pushing for Trump’s hard-line
immigration campaign promises, is gone. When Bannon was there, Trump
signed an executive order stating that it was his policy to “secure the
southern border of the United States through the immediate construction
of a physical wall on the southern border, monitored and supported by
adequate personnel so as to prevent illegal immigration, drug and human
trafficking, and acts of terrorism.” The order was specific, defining the southern border as “the contiguous land border between the United States and Mexico, including all points of entry.” This was followed by a
budget request sent to Congress asking for “$2.6 billion in
high-priority tactical infrastructure and border security technology,
including funding to plan, design, and construct a physical wall along
the southern border.” The budget also requested three hundred million dollars for new
border agents. The executive order and budget requests remain in place,
but Bannon is gone.
John Kelly, the new chief of staff, came from running the Department of
Homeland Security, and he has far more nuanced views on immigration,
including a deep skepticism of Trump’s wall idea. As I reported earlier this year, Kelly told other Homeland Security officials in July
that he has nearly convinced Trump that he doesn’t need a physical barrier on the southern border to prevent illegal crossings.
The second change is that Trump is now genuinely frustrated with
Republican leaders after they failed to deliver an Obamacare repeal to
him. During remarks on Air Force One on Thursday afternoon, Trump was
clear about this.
“I’m a Republican through and through, but I’m also finding that
sometimes to get things through, it’s not working that way,” he said.
“And, you know, we got very poorly treated on the health-care plan, and
now you see what’s happening where people are going single-payer—exactly what I said would happen. And single-payer would be a terrible thing for our country. So my relationship with the Republicans is
excellent. Many of them agree with what I’m doing.” He added, “But we
have to get things passed, and if we can’t get things passed, then we
have to go a different route. We have to get things passed.” This is the clearest statement Trump has made that his deals with Schumer
and Pelosi are actually part of a change in strategy rather than being completely at random. As much as one can read anything into Trump’s behavior, this seems to suggest that the Schumer-Pelosi romance comes out of frustration with Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell.
Schumer suggested something similar on Thursday when he said, in remarks
that were captured by a microphone, that he and Trump have developed a
friendly tactical alliance. “He likes us,” Schumer said, before
realizing that Trump may not actually like Pelosi. “He likes me, anyway.” He
explained, “Here’s what I told him: ‘Mr. President, you’re much better
off if you do one step right, and one step left. If you just step in one
direction, you’re boxed.’ He gets that.”
Schumer and Pelosi went into the dinner on Wednesday with a plan.
Trump’s views on immigration are a little more nuanced that he is
sometimes given credit for. The wall was a campaign rallying cry, but
kicking out immigrants protected by DACA was not. Trump did at one point say that DACA protectees would have to leave the country, but he also frequently suggested that he would not prioritize their deportation and would find a
solution. To immigration hard-liners, including Jeff Sessions, the
Attorney General, Trump’s recent decision to end DACA meant that these
immigrants would be deported. But Trump has undercut Sessions and others by
asking Congress to come up with a legislative solution.
Schumer and Pelosi took him seriously. At the dinner, they specifically
offered passage of the DREAM Act, the main legislation in Congress to
protect people who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children and
through no fault of their own, as part of a deal. The legislation
includes a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers. When Trump requested border
security as the price for the DREAM Act, Schumer and Pelosi pointed to
the parts of his budget request that were outside the wall and the
border agents—in essence to the “high-priority tactical infrastructure and
border security technology” that included a long list of security
measures that have been part of bipartisan immigration deals for years.
“Leaving the dinner, there was no confusion about what was on the table,” a senior Democratic official said. “Today the White House and the President and his allies have tried to describe the outline of the
agreement in a way that minimizes the anger the base feels. But there
was no confusion about it. The Democrats didn’t leave the dinner
thinking he was going to end fighting for the wall, and he made it clear
the wall is later and he wants to deal with DACA first.”
Trump said as much on Thursday. “The wall will come later,” he said,
before leaving the White House for a trip to Florida. But he seemed
confused about what was in the DREAM Act. Later in the day, he told
reporters, “No, we’re not looking at citizenship. We’re not looking at
amnesty. We’re looking at allowing people to stay here.” That statement
represents a major disconnect between Trump and the Democrats, and one
that could scuttle the fragile plan. If Trump does end up signing the DREAM Act, it would be the most
progressive change to immigration laws since Reagan’s mass amnesty, in
1986. No wonder Trump’s base is freaking out.