For nearly an hour Tuesday, President Donald Trump presided over an unusually public negotiating session on the subject of immigration, running the meeting while TV cameras rolled in an apparent effort to knock down reports that he is less than a fully capable commander-in-chief.
Surrounded by 25 lawmakers inside the Cabinet Room, Trump held court over the meeting, alternately inviting Democrats and Republicans — by name — to address the bipartisan group. He ran point for 55 minutes over a relatively free-flowing discussion between lawmakers about the future of the DACA program, border security and the possibility of immigration reform.
“You are not that far away from comprehensive immigration reform,” the president told the group.
The meeting gave Trump a chance to appear in control, and featured substantive discussion—unlike televised meetings with Trump’s Cabinet and other allies in which participants have showered the president with praise, most recently last week — designed to allay Washington chatter about Trump’s fitness.
That reporters and television cameras were allowed to sit in on the negotiations was unexpected. The event had been billed on the official White House schedule as a pool spray, typically brief affairs where the president offers short remarks and sometimes answers a handful of questions before the press is hurried out.
The Republican National Committee seized on the televised back-and-forth in an email bearing the subject line “betcha haven’t seen that before” that included screenshots of Twitter posts from reporters noting how extraordinary it was to watch the president negotiate in real time and praising him for opening the meeting up to the press.
“Many in the media have spent the last week hyperventilating over a phony writer’s opinions, but the American people just witnessed President Trump lead arguably the most transparent, substantive policy discussion with Congress — maybe ever,” the RNC email read.
Yet the president seemed to confuse his own policy positions as the discussion progressed.
The president urged lawmakers to codify into law protections for so-called “dreamers” — undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children — and pledged to “take the heat” if Congress pushes even further and reaches a deal on comprehensive immigration reform.
But he responded warmly to California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s suggestion that he support a “clean” bill on DACA — that is, one without any funding for the border wall Trump has promised since the campaign. “I have no problem,” Trump said. “I think a lot of people would like to see that.”
The exchange prompted House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy to interject that Trump’s position on DACA includes a demand for wall funding. Later in the meeting, Trump added, “You need the wall.”
At another point, Trump suggested Congress return to the practice of granting earmarks, something that was done away with amid ethics scandals in 2010.
Conservative activist groups reacted quickly to the president’s seemingly off-the-cuff endorsement of the earmark system. “If Republicans bring back earmarks, then it virtually guarantees that they will lose the House,” Club for Growth President David McIntosh said in a statement. “Bringing back earmarks is the antithesis of draining the swamp. Earmarks will only benefit the special interests that grow government at the expense of working men and women.”
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders noted Tuesday at her press briefing that reporters had not been witness to the entire discussion and that a deal about future negotiation parameters was only struck once the press left the room. She declined to say whose idea it had been to allow the press pool to observe the meeting.
“A number of individuals in the room felt it was a good thing to let you see the cooperation and the conversation between both sides and see how we’re working and leading to move the ball down the felt and come up with some real solutions,” she said.
President Barack Obama convened a similarly public, albeit planned, televised session with Republicans and Democrats in 2010 on health care reform.
Trump has spent the past week fuming about suggestions raised by Michael Wolff’s recently released tell-all, “Fire and Fury,” that he is impaired by mental decline, prone to repeating himself on an ever-condensing loop and unable to recognize old friends.
The president drew attention to questions about his mental fitness in a series of tweets over the weekend, in which he boasted that he is “a very stable genius.”
On Monday, questions were further revived when Trump appeared not to sing all the words to the national anthem as he stood on the field before the college football championship game in Atlanta. Online, social media users wondered whether Trump knew the words to the national anthem, a song he has vaulted into the national discussion by complaining about NFL players who kneel while it’s played at professional games.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), once a fierce Trump critic who has lately become a golf buddy and booster of the president, said Tuesday’s televised White House encounter was “the most fascinating meeting I’ve been involved with in 20-plus years in politics.”
“I very much appreciate President Trump’s attitude, demeanor, and desire to get something done that will make our nation more secure — while being fair to the Dreamers,” Graham said in a statement. “President Trump has the right attitude. Now it is up to all of us in Congress to come up with a proposal that gets the job done.”
Florida Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, another attendee at Tuesday’s meeting, said the president’s invitation to reporters to sit in forced lawmakers to go on the record about how to deal with DACA.
“All of those things were said publicly so it’s a little bit harder now for anybody that was in that meeting,” he continued in remarks to reporters. “It’s not going to be easy but I think the fact that you all, and therefore the American people, saw that puts a lot of pressure [on us] and that’s helpful. You need that pressure to get this done.”
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