Opinion writer


As we barrel towards a government shutdown, it’s becoming clearer and clearer that one of the crucial reasons for the impasse is that we just don’t know what President Trump would need in the way of realistic concessions from Democrats that might induce him to agree to a deal protecting the “dreamers.”

In fact, it’s not even clear that the White House or even Trump himself know the answer to this question. And so, if we have a government shutdown, Trump’s profound cluelessness about the issues, and the degree to which this renders him susceptible to manipulation by the cynical immigration hard-liners around him, may be key reasons why.

I’m told that in a series of meetings between Democratic and GOP leaders and Trump administration officials, Democrats repeatedly pressed their counterparts to make a counter-offer, after Trump rejected the bipartisan deal reached recently that would legalize the dreamers in exchange for some concessions. They have gotten nothing serious in response, I’m told.

Frank Sharry, the executive director of America’s Voice, told me that senior Democratic aides have been privately briefing him and other immigration advocates on these meetings. They have included Democrats Sen. Richard J. Durbin (Ill.) and Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (Md.), and Republicans Sen. John Cornyn (Tex.) and Rep. Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), the respective Number Twos in their caucuses, and senior White House and Department of Homeland Security officials.

Sharry said that Democratic aides detailed for advocates a situation in which the Democrats asked the Republicans and the administration officials to put forward a counter-proposal that would help flesh out what Trump might need to accept a deal. Durbin and Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) recently negotiated a bipartisan compromise that would protect the dreamers in exchange for more border security money, tweaks to family-based migration and cuts to visas given out to people from historically lower-immigration countries.

“The Democrats keep asking for a counter to the Graham-Durbin bill that would lay out what the White House wants, to see if there’s a middle ground between the proposal on the table and the White House position,” Sharry told me, characterizing the briefings he’s received on these meetings. In response, Sharry said, “there have been no such proposals.”

Instead, Sharry said, White House officials have continued to circulate documents at these meetings reiterating that Trump wants a number of very hard-line proposals, such as huge sums of money for a border wall and big cuts to legal immigration, which Sharry described as “the Stephen Miller-nativist wish list.” But Democrats continue to ask for proposals that would show what Trump might accept as a middle ground, to no avail.

A senior Democratic aide familiar with these meetings confirmed this account. Indeed, the lack of clarity from the White House on this point appears to have frustrated Republicans as well: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) recently sniped that Trump “has not yet indicated what measure he is willing to sign” and that as a result, lawmakers are “spinning our wheels.”

Last night, the House passed a bill funding the government for a month, and it appears that Senate Democrats have the votes to block it, meaning we may be heading for a shutdown. Democrats continue to hope that Trump and the White House will still be open to a deal on the dreamers, and they have called for a very short-term funding bill to create space to make that deal, but Republicans don’t appear willing.

As it is, Trump and the White House have rejected the Graham-Durbin compromise, even though it makes serious concessions toward what Trump says he wants. This reportedly came after hard-liners such as senior policy adviser Stephen Miller and Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) talked him into believing that the deal was terrible for him. During those discussions, Trump unleashed his alleged “shithole countries” comment and concluded that the deal allows in too many people “from countries he deemed undesirable,” as The Post reported.

Trump has a basic lack of understanding of the issues that renders him easily manipulated. Yet he does have a vision of sorts as well: He is expressly rejecting the deal because it does not sufficiently conform to his white nationalist agenda.

These factors are at the core of the impasse. Trump originally had wanted to use the dreamers as a bargaining chip to win over hard-line immigration concessions from Democrats. He asked for a bipartisan deal that would protect the dreamers and give him some of those things. Senators produced a deal in good faith. But Trump rejected it, insisting it falls well short of what he wants — it doesn’t keep out enough people from “shithole countries.” Yet there are no signs Trump or the White House are willing to articulate a new set of demands that fall somewhere between the deal he rejected and the “Stephen Miller-nativist wish list.”

If there is a government shutdown, this will be a big reason why.

* TRUMP’S APPROVAL IS IN THE TOILET: A new NBC News poll finds that Trump’s approval is at 39 percent, the lowest first-year approval in history. Note this:

Fifty-seven percent disapprove of Trump’s job, including a majority of respondents — 51 percent — who now say they strongly disapprove, which is a record high for Trump in the survey. That’s compared with 26 percent of Americans who strongly approve of the president’s job.

That is remarkable: Only a quarter strongly approve, while a majority strongly disapproves. If that holds, that could have some impact on the energy among voters in the midterms.

* WHY DEMOCRATS MAY HOLD THE LINE: Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) points out the obvious: If Democrats don’t make a stand now and the short-term spending bill passes but the fate of the “dreamers” remains unresolved, Schumer says, “there’ll be no incentive to negotiate, and we’ll be right back here in a month with the same problems at our feet.”

Yes, of course. And let me remind you that Trump and Republicans agree that the dreamers must be protected, so there’s no reason not to bite the bullet and make a deal doing that right now.

* WHY REPUBLICANS FEAR A SHUTDOWN: The Washington Examiner reports that GOP strategists fear a shutdown could imperil their efforts to sell the tax bill, which is crucial to holding off a midterm bloodbath:

A government shutdown would be a distraction, with no guarantee that voters would blame Democrats for the impasse. Even if Democrats suffer, a shutdown would still grab headlines and get in the way of touting tax reform. … “I see no scenario where we keep the House if the tax bill is unpopular,” a Republican strategist said.

Democrats are surely aware of this calculus, and it’s probably one reason they are standing firm — if there is a shutdown, Republicans will want to make a deal to end it quickly.

* TRUMP AND THE GOP OWN THE SHUTDOWN: The Post’s Damian Paletta and Erica Werner remind us of some important facts and context in assessing the coming government shutdown:

Never before has the government experienced a furlough of federal employees when a single party controls both the White House and Congress … Unlike almost any president or administration before him, Trump has fanned the flames of a shutdown. Trump has repeatedly mused about the prospects of halting federal operations, saying at one point that the government needed a “good shutdown” to teach Democrats a lesson.

Trump and Republicans run the place. This is their shutdown.

* RECORD TURNOVER IN TRUMP’S WHITE HOUSE: NPR reports on a new Brookings Institution report that finds that turnover among top White House staff is at record levels:

Turnover in Trump’s first year was more than triple that in former President Barack Obama’s first year, and double the rate in President Ronald Reagan’s White House. A full 34 percent of high-level White House aides either resigned, were fired or moved into different positions in this first year of the Trump presidency.

Fine-tuned machine … only the best and most serious people … believe me …

* THE GOP’S BAD FAITH ON CHIP: Paul Krugman notes that Republicans refused to fund the Children’s Health Insurance Program for months, yet are now including funding in a short term bill solely to get Dems to back it with no protections for the dreamers:

G.O.P. leaders seem to believe that they can bully Democrats by threatening to hurt millions of children — because Democrats care more about those children than they do. They also believe that if this tactic fails they can frame it as an exhibition of callousness by Democrats. Democrats should just say no. These tactics cannot be allowed to succeed.

Yup, the bad faith is basically bottomless. And as I argued, in saying no to this bill, Democrats will be taking a stand against that bad faith, as well as against Trump’s white nationalism.

* JOHN KELLY STRUGGLES TO MANAGE TRUMP: The New York Times has an unsettling report on just how far White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly goes to prevent Trump from getting exposed to bad information that might set him off:

Mr. Kelly, officials say, has made a conscious decision … [to] pour his efforts into controlling who sees and talks to Mr. Trump and trying to shape his thinking on key issues. … He has repeatedly barked at senior advisers who have conversations with Mr. Trump that Mr. Kelly did not authorize.

But despite Kelly’s efforts, the Times also reports that many staffers are “demoralized” by the chaos and are starting Year Two “with less a sense of excitement and purpose than dread.” They aren’t the only ones.