Trump got Congress to believe he’d be interested in making a deal. Then when they needed him most, he walked away.
Donald Trump said he wanted to make a deal on DACA. Donald Trump just spent the past few days doing everything he could to kill a deal on DACA. Therefore, Donald Trump deserves the blame for the Senate’s failure to pass an immigration bill.
It’s really that simple.
The Senate debacle only happened because Congress — and everyone else — thought Trump wanted to make a deal
Even after Donald Trump got elected president with immigration as his signature issue, most members of Congress didn’t want to touch the subject. They knew that the combination of complicated policy and polarized politics was going to make it very difficult to pass any legislation, and they didn’t want to take any votes that would turn into attack-ad fodder instead of actual laws.
What changed their minds wasn’t just Trump’s September 2017 decision to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which protected young unauthorized immigrants from deportation and allowed them to work legally in the United States. It wasn’t even, necessarily, the fact that Trump set an artificial March 5 “deadline” and said that he wasn’t really ending DACA, just giving Congress a six-month chance to address the status of DACA recipients.
What really inspired so many members of Congress, in both chambers and parties, to accept a “DACA fix” as a legislative priority was that Trump acted like he wanted to make a deal.
Trump’s “dealmaker” reputation has often been misunderstood or overstated by pundits and politicians. Even as a businessman, Trump loved deals but hated compromises; a deal, for him, was that he won and the other guy lost. But what Trump prided himself on, and ran on as a candidate, was that he could find imaginative ways to get what he wanted.
For Congress to actually make a deal on such a touchy issue as immigration, that combination of flexibility and relentlessness would be desperately needed. Congress would need the autonomy to work out the details of legislation in such a way that 60 members of the Senate, and a majority of House Republicans, could feel comfortable voting for it — which would be much easier for Republicans if they knew the president would provide political cover with the right wing.
The idea that Trump would play dealmaker on immigration wasn’t as far-fetched as it might have seemed. He said over and over that he had a “big heart” for DACA recipients and wanted to protect them. The fact that it took him until September 2017 to actually pull the trigger on DACA — and, even then, sent Jeff Sessions in front of the cameras to make the official announcement — was an indication that he really didn’t want to be on the hook for young immigrants losing deportation protections.
Sure, many of Trump’s closest advisers, including senior policy adviser Stephen Miller and Chief of Staff John Kelly, had strong opinions about immigration policy. But Trump had shown an inclination not to listen to his advisers when he didn’t want to.
On several occasions between the September announcement and the Senate debate, Trump actually did show interest in compromise. There was the infamous “Chuck and Nancy” dinner meeting, during which (depending on whom you believe) he may have agreed to sign a bill that legalized DACA recipients without demanding any concession to conservatives. There was the January Oval Office meeting in which (after the cameras were off) he reportedly told congressional negotiators to ignore the packet of demands that Department of Homeland Security officials had just passed out.
And before the cameras had turned off, Trump had said this:
“When this group comes back, hopefully with an agreement, I am signing it. I will be signing it. I’m not going to say, ‘Oh, gee, I want this or I want that.’ I will be signing it.”
Trump didn’t do anything he needed to do to make a deal
At some point — probably after the “shithole countries” brouhaha in January, judging from the tone of the president’s tweets — Donald Trump decided he was more interested in blaming Democrats for not making a deal on DACA than he was in making a deal on DACA. From that point on, the White House’s strategy aligned with what staffers like Stephen Miller wanted: with more interest in fighting for specific policies that weren’t related to DACA — specifically, cutting legal immigration — then in fighting to address DACA itself first and foremost.
It’s not yet clear (though it’s probably just a few juicy palace-intrigue articles away) exactly what role Trump played in the White House’s shift. He might have changed his mind — after several months of pressing Congress to act, he might have decided that he actually cared a great deal about “I want this or I want that,” and was comfortable letting Congress twist in the wind.
Or he could have, just as damningly, made a mess of the negotiations and then walked away for other people to clean it up.
By the time the Senate actually took up immigration at the beginning of this week, the White House’s demands had calcified to a page-long laundry list of “want this, want that.” They put out an immigration framework in late January and decided unilaterally that it represented a compromise (even though Democrats were immediately and vociferously opposed).
The White House then panned the alternatives floated by various bipartisan groups, claiming that because they didn’t stick to the particulars in the White House framework, they were violating the four “pillars” legislators had agreed to in the televised meeting — the meeting where Trump said he wouldn’t haggle over particulars.
The White House killed bills the Senate might have passed. The Rounds-King proposal that got 54 votes on Thursday, for example, likely would have passed with a few more Republicans (Chuck Schumer might have been less willing to allow three Democrats who voted no to defect if it made the difference between passage and failure). But the White House issued a veto threat before the vote had been opened; DHS put out a press release invoking 9/11; administration officials held a press call just to dump on the bill.
Trump didn’t even really try to close the deal on the bill he claimed to support: the Grassley bill modeled on his own framework. Instead of lobbying senators, he wrote a vague tweet about “merit-based immigration.” Instead of extolling the virtues of the Grassley bill, his advisers talked to reporters about how much they’d given up to immigration doves by allowing DREAMers to apply for citizenship — even exaggerating the scope of the “amnesty” in ways that might have helped cost them the votes of a few hardline Republicans.
All four bills that were put up for a vote in the Senate failed on Thursday. The one Trump had endorsed fared the worst, with 60 senators voting against it. But the fact that nothing happened for the DREAMers — and that hundreds of thousands of young immigrants can still be used as bargaining chips if Congress ever picks up immigration again — should either be seen as the policy victory the White House wanted or a damning political failure. Either way, the responsibility rests on the shoulders of Donald J. Trump.