The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump has over-promised to his base. That makes a terrible outcome more likely.

President Trump threatened to shut down the government over building his promised wall on the U.S.-Mexico border during a campaign rally in Phoenix on Aug. 22. (Video: The Washington Post)


Here’s my big fear right now. President Trump has made too many ridiculous promises to his base voters at precisely the moment he needs them the most, given that the Russia probes are closing in around him. And that makes it more likely that Trump will see a need to throw his base some bloody meat — in the form of ending protections for 800,000 people brought here illegally as children; or in the form of pardoning Joe Arpaio.

Either of those by itself would be a terrible outcome. Both would be even worse.

Trump is very attuned to the cheers that cascade down upon him at his rallies. It is ominous that, at his unhinged hate rant in Arizona, some of the greatest outpourings of approval rained down when Trump hinted he would pardon Arpaio and when he demanded that Congress fund his Great Trumpian Wall on the Mexican border. That latter demand is intimately tied up both with the possibility of a government shutdown and with the fate of those 800,000 “dreamers.” And that creates additional pressure on him to throw his base a “win.”

This morning, CNN’s David Wright offered some new reporting that suggests what might happen to the program protecting the dreamers, which is called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and grants them temporary work permits and protection from deportation. Wright quoted a source claiming Trump is mulling two options: End DACA immediately; or grandfather in those currently protected by it while ending it for new applicants. Trump is reportedly leaning toward the latter. That sounds good, but immigration advocates believe this “grandfathering” would have to mean the current 800,000 would lose their protection and work permits after their DACA status expires, because it’s hard to imagine Trump, who is under pressure from the amnesty-hating right, granting them open-ended protections.

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And that means you’d see those 800,000 losing their protections in rolling intervals. This would put pressure on Congress to protect them legislatively, via some form of legalization. Republicans (many of whom recognize the dreamers are blameless) would probably want to do this, for both moral and political reasons. But the White House, which is planning to use the dreamers as a “bargaining chip,” will probably demand that any such outcome also include funding for Trump’s wall. Democrats (whose support Republicans will need) won’t go along with that.

There are numerous possible endgames here. One is that Trump goes through with his threat to force a government shutdown if his wall isn’t funded. That would mean total chaos and the dreamers losing protections. A second is that Trump backs down on the wall and allows the government to get funded — and nothing is done for the dreamers. A third is that Trump caves on the wall and allows the government to stay open — and a solution is worked out for the dreamers. That would be a good outcome — except that, if Trump is forced to surrender ignominiously on the wall and on the dreamers, he may feel the need to throw something to his base — and pardon Arpaio.

An Arpaio pardon would be awful. As Harvard law professor Noah Feldman explains, Trump would be declaring that a law enforcement official (Arpaio, who was convicted of criminal contempt of court) does not have to do what the courts tell him to do. “Trump has the power to issue the pardon,” Feldman concludes. “But the pardon would trigger a different sort of crisis: a crisis in enforcement of the rule of law.” And this would “undermine the rule of law itself.”

President Trump gave an insult-laden speech at a campaign rally in Phoenix on Aug. 22. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

Yet there is little doubt that Trump will feel increased pressure to go through with an Arpaio pardon, if he loses on other fronts. After all, how much losing can Trump’s base tolerate? It seems plausible that either the dreamers will lose their protections; or Arpaio will be pardoned.

Of course, there’s yet another possible outcome here: A deal is worked out in which all sides can claim a measure of victory. The government gets funded; the dreamers are protected; and Trump gets funding for some sort of expanded fencing. Democrats can say Trump got rolled — that this just constitutes more border security money and that Democrats secured protections for the dreamers while blocking Trump’s wall. But Trump can tell his base that this fencing actually constitutes winning on the wall. With a little luck, his base will believe this — and Trump won’t feel the need to pardon Arpaio. But a lot has to go right for all that to happen. Are you confident in Trump’s ability to finesse such an outcome?

* GARY COHN RIPS TRUMP’S CHARLOTTESVILLE RESPONSE: Gary Cohn, head of the White House national economic council, tells the Financial Times that the Trump administration’s response was inadequate:

“This administration can and must do better in consistently and unequivocally condemning these groups and do everything we can to heal the deep divisions that exist in our communities. … Citizens standing up for equality and freedom can never be equated with white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and the KKK.”

Maybe Cohn can have a polite word with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who has full-throatedly defended Trump’s response.

* TRUMP’S GENIUS NEGOTIATING STRATEGY HELPS DEMOCRATS: Trump has threatened to shut down the government to force Congress to fund his wall, and Carl Hulse points out that this does not give him leverage, because Democrats could blame him for the chaos:

[This] puts more pressure on Republicans to find the votes internally to pass spending bills and an increase in the federal debt limit — two things hard-right conservatives in the House and Senate have refused to support in the past. That Republican resistance provides Democrats leverage — Republicans can either grant concessions such as no wall money or produce all the votes for the spending bills and debt limit increase themselves.

We really need a businessman president to show us how it’s done.

* TRUMP MIGHT NOT GET HIS WALL: With Trump threatening a shutdown, The Post suggests one way this might all unfold:

One senior Republican involved in the process said … that a relatively drama-free extension of the debt limit and a resolution to keep the government open until the end of the year are both likely to pass next month, with discussions about a border wall pushed into the next round of budget negotiations.

In other words, a clean debt limit hike, and a temporary extension of government funding. Seems likely. But how will Trump break it to his cheering supporters that he failed to get his wall — again?

* SOME REPUBLICANS URGE TRUMP TO KEEP DACA: A group of California Republicans in the House has sent a letter to Trump, urging him to keep protections in place for those brought here as children. From the letter:

Children brought to the United States at a young age did not have a choice in the matter. … They speak English, educated themselves at American schools, and may be starting careers. …they are making immediate contributions to our society and economy. … Targeting those with deferred action status would also diver massive resources away from enforcement actions against criminals who pose the greatest threat to law and order.

Well put! As I noted yesterday, if Trump does end DACA, it will basically be dumped into the laps of the GOP Congress to sort out.

* TRUMP FACES A BIG TEST IN HURRICANE HARVEY: A good point from The Post’s James Hohmann: Hurricane Harvey is bearing down on Texas, and this will present Trump with his first big test in the form of a natural disaster. Note this:

Storms like this can define presidencies. George W. Bush’s presidency never recovered after Hurricane Katrina 12 summers ago. George H.W. Bush’s 1992 reelection hopes were hurt by his botched response to Hurricane Andrew because it cemented the narrative that he was detached from domestic problems and unconcerned about acting swiftly to help regular people back home.

Trump is a different political animal from both Bushes in all kinds of ways, but this bears watching.

* TRUMP KEEPS SLAMMING REPUBLICANS: Good morning, Mr. President:

Put aside that Trump still doesn’t appear to grasp that none of the health plans got 50 votes; this plainly shows that he is laying the groundwork to blame Republicans for the coming fall chaos.

* TRUMP EXPANDS LIST OF REPUBLICAN TARGETS: Sorry to hit you with two Trump tweets in one morning, but this one is also important:

This is retaliation for Sen. Bob Corker’s recent suggestion that Trump lacks the competence or stability to be successful. One imagines that, as Republicans increasingly criticize Trump, the reprisals will expand as well.

* TRUMP’S AGENDA IS MOVING RIGHT ALONG: Paul Krugman reminds us that while Trump is tweeting and the Republicans are blowing it on health care, Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt is quietly gutting regulation after regulation:

Pruitt can do a lot of harm without changing the law. He can, for example, reverse the ban on a pesticide that the E.P.A.’s own scientists say may damage children’s nervous systems. Or he can move to scrap a rule that would limit heavy-metal contamination from power-plant wastewater. And he can cripple enforcement of the rules he doesn’t undo simply by working with Trump to starve his own agency of personnel and funds. …When it comes to environmental policy, Trump will definitely change America — and his legacy will literally be toxic.

One danger to keep in mind is that The Trump Show — the tweets, the attacks on the press, the meltdowns at rallies — will keep distracting us from the truly awful policy that’s unfolding under the radar.