Donald Trump ran for president as a bipartisan deal-maker. But if there’s one thing he’s proved after a year in office, he’s better at killing bipartisan deals than clinching them.
On the cusp of a deal for the second time with Democrats to enshrine protections for 700,000 young undocumented immigrants, Trump once again destroyed the underpinnings of the potential agreement. After nixing any potential Dreamers deal last fall with “Chuck and Nancy” — Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi — this time Trump blew up a tentative agreement during a meeting in the Oval Office. He used racially charged language and later publicly mocked Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who had said Trump told him just hours earlier they had an agreement.
So now, instead of securing a bipartisan deal to fund the government and help a large group of immigrants that Trump said deserve compassion, the president and Republican Congress are scrambling, yet again, just to keep the government open. Trump abruptly changed course and sided with the hawkish anti-immigration wing inside his White House, rejecting bipartisan Senate agreement to protect the Dreamers.
The now-weeklong “shithole”-countries controversy is more than another Trump flap blown out of proportion by cable TV and the Trump-obsessed press corps.
It demonstrates once again to Democrats — and Republicans — that Trump is an unpredictable, unreliable partner who cannot be trusted to keep his word. To lawmakers on Capitol Hill, there may be no greater crime, since all members and senators know their word is their bond. Once you lose that credibility, you’re done as a deal-maker.
“It seems the president has only two ways of negotiating,” Schumer said Tuesday. “Either he commits to a deal one day and then betrays his word the next, which is what happened last year after Leader Pelosi and I met with the president on DACA, or he even dismissed the possibility of a compromise and says a bipartisan deal is that he gets everything he wants.”
Durbin, as knowledgeable as anyone in the Senate on immigration, was stunned by Trump’s reversal.
“He’s never done a bipartisan deal as president. … That’s what I thought when I called him Thursday morning: You got it, buddy!” Durbin said in an interview. “What he said to me is, ‘I’m not going to let anybody slow walk this thing.’ That’s what he told me.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who tried to sell the president on the Dreamers deal, was plainly discouraged.
“You can’t fix this problem without the president,” Graham said in an interview. “I think he does [want a deal]. … He’s poorly served by his staff. I think that the guy [last] Tuesday was contrary 180 degrees different from the guy I saw Thursday. I think it’s staff.”
But blaming Trump’s staff was Graham’s way of pulling his punches, since Trump’s position on the Dreamers issue could be changed only if the president himself were willing to change it.
Trump’s apparent change of heart on the Dreamers agreement reached by Durbin and Graham might be the president’s only chance this year for a momentum-changing reach across the aisle on a signature issue. And lawmakers know they can go only so far without him.
“There’s going to have to be a specific plan that the president approves of before Sen. McConnell puts it on the floor,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), who is involved in the “Twos Group” of deputy leaders to try to find an immigration compromise.
With just three days to go until the federal government runs out of money, there is a real question whether Trump and GOP congressional leaders can muster the support of enough Republicans to avoid a shutdown. Democrats appear ready to stand aside — at least in the House — to see whether the GOP majority can actually govern on its own.
“The reason I think the chances of a shutdown increased is because the president, between Tuesday and Thursday of last week, was so erratic on what he was and wasn’t willing to embrace and do, even on a topic where he himself convened the meeting,” said Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.).
There’s also another problem for Trump. After the partisan battles of 2017, in which Trump and Republicans pushed through a Supreme Court nomination by changing Senate rules; failed to repeal Obamacare because of GOP opposition; and rammed through a $1 trillion tax cut without any Democratic votes, his legislative agenda for 2018 is now in tatters. And that’s just 10 days after Trump declared he was hoping this year would be different from the last.
“We hope that we’re going to be able to work out an arrangement with the Democrats. It’s something, certainly, that I’d like to see happen,” Trump said at a Jan. 6 news conference following his recent GOP-only Camp David retreat.
With Trump shifting his policy positions like a change of clothes and lashing out at lawmakers for taking a political position he had recently supported, lawmakers say it becomes difficult or impossible to negotiate.
“For bipartisanship, you have to stick to the same position for more than a couple hours,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, a Democrat who plans to praise Bob Dole in a floor speech this week. He said the former Republican Senate leader “was effective because he can keep Republicans and Democrats together and he always kept his word. I think about him a lot these days.”
During a Senate hearing on Tuesday with Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, Graham openly showed his own frustration with Trump.
Graham has worked hard to build a relationship with Trump after clashing with him during the South Carolinian’s short-lived presidential campaign. He and Durbin thought there was a deal with Trump, only to see the rug pulled out from underneath them.
“What happened between 10 and 12?” Graham asked of Thursday’s about-face by Trump. “[Earlier] Tuesday, we had a president that I was proud to golf with, call my friend, who understood immigration had to be bipartisan, you had to have border security as essential, you have border security with a wall, but he also understood the idea that we had to do it with compassion. I don’t know where that guy went. I want him back.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who has had to deal with Trump’s skittishness firsthand, went to the floor on Tuesday calling the threat of a shutdown “a manufactured crisis.” McConnell cited a federal judge’s ruling preventing Trump from shutting down the DACA program, at least temporarily, as enough of a reason to avoid a government shutdown on Friday, when funding runs out.
“Now that a federal judge has issued a nationwide injunction preventing the administration from winding down the Obama administration’s DACA program, it is clear that Congress has at least until March — at a minimum, and possibly even longer — to reach a compromise that resolves the DACA question but also strengthens our security and makes other needed reforms to our broken immigration system,” McConnell said.
“I am confident that senators on both sides of the aisle will choose to avoid a manufactured crisis, reach a bipartisan funding agreement in the coming days, and then continue our negotiations in these important areas.”
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