President Trump's first foray into dealmaking with Democrats — a short-term extension of the debt ceiling — was shocking. But it was also relatively easy. It was a low-impact throwing of his own party under the bus, because debt ceiling increases are basically always approved.
Cutting a deal on immigration and DACA will be significantly more difficult. And it has already turned into a Trumpian mess.
First came the White House's conflicting signals on whether an agreement had been reached. Trump tweeted early Thursday that there was “no deal” but soon clarified that a deal was “fairly close.”
Color me skeptical. On two specific counts — the border wall and a pathway to citizenship — the White House, Trump and Democrats are providing a multitude of mixed signals. There may have been an agreement negotiated Wednesday night, but it's always subject to the ever-shifting negotiations in Trump's own head.
First, the border wall. In announcing the agreement Wednesday night, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said its outline included renewing DACA — the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which exempts illegal immigrants brought into the country as children from deportation — and balancing it with increased border security. But they emphasized that the border security part would be “excluding the wall.”
Not so, said White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders early Thursday. “While DACA and border security were both discussed," she said, "excluding the wall was certainly not agreed to.” Okay.
Two hours later, though, Trump himself contradicted that. “The wall will come later,” he said.
And then, in what could be the coup de grace for the entire thing, he just said there had to be an “understanding” that the wall would be funded in the near future. “We have to be sure the wall isn’t obstructed, because without the wall, I wouldn’t do anything,” Trump said. “It doesn’t have to be here, but they can’t obstruct the wall if it's in a budget or anything else.”
He added: “If there’s not a wall, we’re doing nothing.”
If you can decode that, let me know. But it sounds as if Trump is saying that he wants Democrats, as part of this agreement, to promise not to block future wall funding. That's a very tall order, given that the wall is a red line for them.
And then there's the pathway to citizenship. The White House seemed to signal midmorning that it was open to such arrangements — while clarifying that it wasn't for “amnesty.” Here's what spokeswoman Lindsay Walters said:
WH spox Lindsay Walters on AF1 just moments ago. A little confusing, but here you go --> pic.twitter.com/Ao8vZBhnAn
— Matthew Nussbaum (@MatthewNussbaum) September 14, 2017
Let's set aside for the moment that huge swaths of Trump's base believe a path to citizenship is amnesty (which is hugely problematic from the White House's standpoint). When he landed in Florida, shortly after Walters's comments, Trump again totally contradicted his own press aide.
“We’re not looking at citizenship,” he said. “We’re not looking at amnesty. We’re looking at allowing people to stay here.”
In addition to contradicting Walters, this contradicts itself. “Allowing people to stay here” is a form of amnesty, even if it's not citizenship.
Then, shortly after that, Pelosi said at her news conference that the deal on DACA did include a path to citizenship — at least for the “dreamers.”
“I do believe there is an understanding that down the road there is an eventual path to citizenship,” she said.
More Pelosi: "I do believe there is an understanding that down the road there is an eventual path to citizenship" https://t.co/1C9IQHDnN8
— Heather Caygle (@heatherscope) September 14, 2017
And that is indeed part of the Dream Act. Pelosi and Schumer said in their Wednesday night statement that the agreement was to “enshrine the protections of DACA into law quickly.” Trump may not know it, but that includes a new pathway to citizenship.
In other words, the rubber is meeting the road, and the White House seems to have no clue what its negotiating posture is or how it's going to sell this to the conservative base. It seems to be trying to gain concessions on the wall without it actually being included in the package, but Democrats will probably balk at that. The White House also seems conflicted about pathways to citizenship, but that's an inescapable part of this deal — again, from the Democrats' perspective.
What this final deal looks like is anybody's guess, but it will be much, much tougher to navigate than Trump's first bipartisan deal. And there are already signs of some irreconcilable — or, at least, very difficult to reconcile — differences over the particulars.
Update: Adding to the confusion, GOP and Democratic leaders don't even seem to agree on whether an agreement has been reached.