In the first White House briefing since the administration announced the phasing out of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders issued a remarkable challenge to lawmakers: They need to pass something on immigration, she said repeatedly, or else.
“That's their job,” she said, “and if they can't do it, then they need to get out of the way and let somebody else who can take on a heavy lift and get things accomplished.”
She repeated: “Again, if they can't, then they should get out of the way and let somebody else take their job that can actually get something done.”
And then: “Again, if Congress doesn't want to do the job that they were elected to do, then maybe they should get out of the way and let someone else do it.”
This is a remarkable tone for the White House to be setting on the eve of a number of critical fights and pieces of legislation. We knew President Trump was willing to unleash his Twitter account on GOP congressional leaders, and during one Q&A, he left open the idea that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) might need to be replaced if he can't deliver. But Sanders's repeated comments make clear those weren't just one-offs; this is now the White House's official strategy and talking point.
To recap, the things on Congress's to-do list are: averting a government shutdown, passing the first major tax reform since 1986, a hurricane relief bill for Harvey (and the possibility of emergency action required for Hurricane Irma in Florida), a massive to-be-determined infrastructure bill and now comprehensive immigration reform. (Sanders made clear Trump doesn't want “just a one-piece fix.") Oh, and don't forget that Trump wants Congress to resurrect health care and get that done, too.
Even if this wasn't a Congress in which failure and gridlock have become the norm, that would be a daunting set of tasks. Trump has now set the bar so high that he's basically guaranteeing Congress will fail, by his standards. And Sanders so casually adding comprehensive immigration reform to their to-do list Tuesday — and basically giving them six months to complete it before DACA is phased out — was the equivalent of a gut punch to congressional leaders, given years and years of failure on that issue. Having the White House pile that on is almost cruel.
Former McConnell aide Josh Holmes quickly hit back at Sanders on Tuesday afternoon.
The reaction from congressional leaders has been more muted. In response to the DACA announcement, for instance, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) said Congress must now work to legislate the issue “with the president's leadership.”
The problem, as I noted earlier Tuesday, is that Trump has shown little appetite for providing that leadership. He has demonstrated that he much prefers to leave things to Congress and blame them when they fail. Even more troublingly for GOP leaders, Trump doesn't just get out of the way; he is forever changing his positions and giving Congress conflicting signals, leaving leaders without the opportunity to apply presidential pressure on members. Trump's only priority seems to be passing something, but even on that front, his efforts are usually counterproductive. Even in urging large-scale action on immigration, the White House on Tuesday declined to say specifically what it wanted from a bill or whether Trump would sign a straight replacement of just DACA.
And there is zero reason to believe any of this will change any time soon. Indeed, Trump only seems to be growing more frustrated with Congress and more willing to lash out at it and threaten it. Tuesday's example was the latest indication of a looming showdown and irreconcilable, inherent problems between Congress and the White House.
This will get worse before it gets better.