There’s an old saying attributed to Otto von Bismark that laws and sausage are two things people should never watch being made. For nearly an hour on Tuesday, however, the public was given a window into the ongoing Washington negotiations over immigration issues – and the picture it painted wasn’t as stomach-churning as might be imagined.
Yes, all parties – Donald Trump and Republican and Democratic legislators – were keenly aware that the cameras were rolling. And, yes, the bottom line is what the parties are willing to agree to when pen is put to paper and votes are recorded. What’s more, Mr Trump has expressed openness to immigration compromise in the past, only to revert to his more pugnacious habits. But in a political environment riddled with acrimony and abuse, we got a rare glimpse – for a moment – on how the machinery of government could function in a more productive fashion.
Trump the negotiator
After a week of press battering over assertions in Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury that even Mr Trump’s own staff questioned his mental capacity, the president held court in the White House and engaged friends and foes alike.
This, at least for an hour, was the Donald Trump many American voters may have hoped – or even expected – they were getting when they elected him president. While he stood firm on his belief that a (less expansive) border wall was necessary for American security and that immigration rules should be tightened, he was far less bombastic and inflammatory than he seems in his rally speeches, off-the-cuff press remarks and early morning tweet-storms.
The president didn’t dive deep into the policy details, of course, but he was willing to let all parties have their say and gently nudge them toward agreement. He expressed faith that everyone at the table could come to an accommodation on issues such as providing protection for undocumented immigrants previously covered by Barack Obama’s Daca (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) order and strengthened border security.
He also promised that he would sign whatever Congress put on his desk, and not nitpick over details.
It was a situation that played to the president’s strengths and, perhaps, showed a path forward for an embattled administration – which is probably exactly why the White House gave such unusual access at the meeting.
The sticking point
There was an interesting exchange between California Democratic Senator Diane Feinstein and Donald Trump midway through the discussion in which she said Democrats wanted a “clean” Daca bill.
Clean, in conventional Washington parlance, means a stand-alone bill with no other measure attached. Trump agreed – and you could almost hear his Republicans gasp in horror.
Then, the president explained: ” I think, to me, a clean bill is a bill of Daca, we take care of them, and we also take care of security.”
In other words, Daca plus border security (including wall funding). And there’s the rub. Will Democrats give Mr Trump his wall in exchange for Daca protections enshrined into law? Or will the president back down and accept more nebulous border security funding with no wall guarantee? And can they get it all done while also passing a budget plan to keep the US government operating after the current 19 January spending authorisation expires?
Despite all the talk on Tuesday, the parties seemed no closer to agreement on this matter.
Whither Trump’s base?
It’s still jarring to hear Mr Trump, who relentlessly bashed 2016 primary opponents Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and other Republicans on their support for earlier support of bipartisan immigration negotiations, talk approvingly about comprehensive immigration reform done with “love”.
Already some of his formerly loyal supporters are recoiling in horror.
“Nothing Michael Wolff could say about Donald Trump has hurt him as much as the Daca lovefest right now,” Ann Coulter tweeted after the meeting.
For those in Mr Trump’s anti-immigration base, Daca is nothing short of amnesty for illegal immigration – a betrayal of the candidate Trump’s hard line immigration talk. And weaving that into a larger reform package that may mix a pathway to normalisation for more of the 11 million undocumented aliens currently living in the US with changes to the current immigration system is straight-up heresy.
At least for the moment, the president seems willing to risk his base’s ire in exchange for proof that he can land a deal.
“I’ll take the heat,” Mr Trump said of possible pushback over a bipartisan agreement. “You are not that far away from comprehensive immigration reform.”
That may be cold comfort to Republicans who would have to face an angry base in 2018’s mid-term elections, two years before the president has to face voters. Then again, with Steve Bannon’s anti-establishment movement in tatters, they may have a bit more room in which to operate.
A swamp favourite
Early in the hour-long conversation, Mr Trump lamented the lack of comity in Washington these days and suggested a rather swamp-friendly solution
“I hear so much about earmarks and how there was a great friendliness when you had earmarks,” Trump said. “Maybe all of you should start thinking about going back to a form of earmarks”.
Earmarks, for the uninitiated, are a legislative procedure where legislators can attach spending for specific projects onto larger bills, often to the benefit of constituents in their home districts.
Supporters view it as a way to grease the wheels of legislative compromise. Detractors, who succeeded in getting the practice banned when Republicans took control of the House of Representatives in 2011, say it encourages wasteful spending and corruption.
Now the president, who railed against the Washington “swamp” and its corrupt practices as a candidate, is endorsing a measure that capital insiders – lobbyists and lawmakers alike – once adored.
Strange days, indeed.