Before we begin, a brief current events quiz: What is President Trump’s position on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which allows undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children to live and work here under certain conditions?
A. He wants to end it because it leads to crime.
B. He wants to keep it because he loves the participants.
C. He wants Congress to decide what to do with it.
D. He will decide what to do with it in six months.
The correct answer, of course, is E, all of the above.
On Tuesday, the Trump White House, in one form or another, embraced each of those options. A statement from Trump announced that DACA would be wound down, in part out of concern that it had encouraged immigration patterns that he argued lead to more gang activity. If Congress wants to save the program, it has a six-month window to do so.
A few hours later, though, Trump suggested that his goal was specifically to have Congress save DACA.
“Hopefully now Congress will be able to help them and do it properly,” he said to reporters, adding that he has “a love for these people.”
By Tuesday evening, Trump suggested that the end-to-DACA-make-Congress-decide angle was just one possibility.
“If they can’t, I will revisit this issue!” Not the language of a guy who’s committed to ending the program.
We’ve seen this dance before. On the campaign trail, Trump pledged sweeping, inexpensive health-care coverage for everybody. When Republican leaders in Congress started to put together a plan to overhaul Obamacare, that’s not what it looked like, but Trump went along with it anyway. As debate over a replacement unfolded, Trump vacillated on what he claimed to want, celebrating a House-passed bill and then deriding it as “mean” and, in a matter of hours, flipping back and forth on whether he wanted to simply repeal the bill or to repeal and replace it or both.
Part of the problem is that Trump’s grasp of the nuance of these policies appears to be limited. On Tuesday, the New York Times reported that “[a]s late as one hour before the decision [on DACA] was to be announced, administration officials privately expressed concern that Mr. Trump might not fully grasp the details of the steps he was about to take, and when he discovered their full impact, would change his mind.” It seems as if that may have happened — that, as the Times’s Maggie Haberman speculated on Twitter, Trump saw the to-him-unexpected negative reception to his administration’s plan on television and began to waffle.
More broadly, though, this is very much in keeping with what we have come to expect from Trump. There are certain core principles to which he adheres, like that taxes are too high or that there should be a wall. Then there are things that he recognized as winners on the stump and which morphed into informal policy positions: replace Obamacare, no more amnesty for immigrants here illegally, drain the swamp. Those were things that got crazy amounts of applause at rallies, so he kept saying them.
In the White House, though, not everything that got applause on the trail earns that same reaction. Since Trump is highly motivated by the response he gets, he would rather have his positions exist in a state of uncertainty than finalize a plan and be criticized for it. Last week we asked if the buck ever stopped in the Oval Office any more. On DACA, it certainly doesn’t.
There are some contexts in which Trump has explicitly praised this strategy as deliberate. In foreign policy, for example, Trump has embraced the idea that he’ll never tip his hand as being smart and strategic in keeping our enemies off-balance. It was also an effective argument during the 2016 election when he could wave away questions about his strategy for dealing with the Islamic State by saying he didn’t want to give them a heads up (as though interviewers were requesting dates and times of particular operations). This strategy itself derives from one of the tenets he espoused in his dealmaking books: Maximize the options, and it’s easier to come out a winner.
While he’s not explicitly citing that strategy in the case of DACA, it seems pretty clear that he’s doing the same thing. If you can’t say for certain what Trump’s plan is, then you can’t get mad at him, right? If you want to preserve DACA, you can now choose to believe that (his statement not withstanding) Trump wants to preserve it and that the only recourse is for Congress to act. I might not recommend believing that to be true, but Trump gave you that option.
In recent years, politicians whose records are blank slates have seen a lot of success because it allows people to project onto them whatever they want to see. In 2008, Barack Obama’s emergence on the national scene led millions of Americans to see in him things that may or may not have been there. In 2016, Trump enjoyed the same benefit — though he was able to in part because people were willing to ignore some of what was pretty obviously already on that slate.
Above all else, it seems, Trump wants to be liked. He wants his base to like him, so he axes DACA; he wants everyone else to like him so he pretends he didn’t. He’s happy as Schrodinger’s cat in that box (maybe), existing at one time in all possible states of public opinion — as long as one of them is approval.