The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump’s eerily familiar DACA strategy: Blame Congress

President Trump speaks before signing a proclamation for a national day of prayer last week. (Evan Vucci/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

The Trump administration made it official Tuesday: It will end the Obama-era protection for undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children, known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA.

But rather than kill it, the administration is phasing it out, arguing that's the “compassionate” thing to do. Attorney General Jeff Sessions used that word several times in announcing the decision. The acting head of the Department of Homeland Security, Elaine Duke, said it was a choice between gradually shutting it down and letting the courts potentially kill it instantly. “We chose the least disruptive option,” she said.

The administration also chose the option that allows President Trump to delay tough choices and blame someone else. And that makes it part of a long-running pattern for Trump.

Whatever reputation Trump has for being a strong and decisive leader, the first seven months of his administration have been marked by plenty of convenient delays and buck-passing. And in this move, you have both.

The Trump administration is appealing an injunction on the phaseout of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, and asking the Supreme Court to get involved. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

Trump clearly struggled with the decision in recent days, given his own past rhetoric about it being an illegal program but also his promise to handle the issue with “heart.” There was also the real, public reluctance in the congressional GOP to end the program. In the end, Trump chose what the administration believes is a justifiable middle ground that buys everyone some time.

‘We are America’: DACA recipients, supporters say they are not going anywhere

It also, importantly, allows him to blame Congress if and when it doesn't pass a fix. And he's already set about arguing that this one is on Congress to get right. He tweeted Tuesday morning that Congress should “get ready to do your job” on DACA.

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan's (R-Wis.) statement says, “It is my hope that the House and Senate, with the president’s leadership, will be able to find consensus on a permanent legislative solution.”

But Trump's track record suggests anything but “the president's leadership” being in the offing on this. Trump left Congress to figure out the details on health care and blamed Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) when it failed. He's also left the details to Congress on tax revisions. He has blamed McConnell and Ryan for the current budgetary “mess.” He has said Congress needs to reduce its threshold for passing legislation from 60 votes to 50 votes. (You'll also notice his tweet doesn't say “let's get this done;” it says Congress needs to get it done — i.e. “do your job.")

Update: White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders made this strategy even clearer at today's briefing: “The American people elected them to do it," she said of passing immigration laws, "and if they can’t, then they should get out of the way and let somebody else take their job."

At the White House briefing, Sept. 5, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders repeatedly said Congress was elected to pass legislation reforming immigration law. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

In addition to blaming Congress, he's regularly put off difficult decisions. After announcing the transgender military ban, Trump waited a month before instructing the Defense Department to study the issue and send recommendations in early 2018. Other decisions he has delayed:

Given the difficulty of this decision and how fraught it was no matter how he came down — he would alienate the base by not making good on his tough immigration rhetoric or alienate the whole country by doing something broadly unpopular — it's little surprise Trump went with the path of least resistance.

But there is also evidence that this approach is affecting views of him. Those views, of course, have declined across the board, but among many attributes tested by Quinnipiac University, the view that he is a strong leader has declined the most. While 56 percent said he had good leadership skills after his election, today just 37 percent say that — a decline of 19 points. In February, 59 percent told Gallup that Trump was a “strong and decisive leader.” As of three weeks ago, that was down to 47 percent. This was the biggest decline of five attributes that Gallup has tested repeatedly.

Congress is apparently going to give it the old college try when it comes to replacing DACA. If it can't, it's pretty clear Trump will blame it for not doing its job (yet again). But in the meantime, this approach seems to be undermining Trump's brand.