Maybe he's sick of Republicans, or maybe he's energized by the possibility of cutting headline-grabbing deals with “Chuck and Nancy,” as he has chummily called the Democrats' congressional leaders.
For whatever reason, President Trump can't stop talking about how he's going to work across the aisle with Democrats on everything from health care to immigration to fiscal issues.
But both sides in Congress are approaching this very warily. For now, Trump's talk of bipartisanship is just that — all talk, hardly any walk.
Two big reasons Congress is skeptical:
- The president seems to be creating an alternate reality, one where he already has both Republicans and Democrats on his side.
- Even if he did grasp where lawmakers stand on the issues, you can't just flip a switch and get previously skeptical people to sign deals with you.
Lately, Trump has been going around saying Republicans finally have the votes to repeal Obamacare. There's a senator who would vote yes but is in the hospital, he explains. Except Senate leaders say they don’t have the votes. And the senator who is supposedly in the hospital is not in the hospital.
A breath later, he'll say he plans to work with Democrats to reform health care.
“The point is this. Health care, we have it. We have the votes. Because of reconciliation, we have to wait till January, February or March, which we'll do,” he told reporters Wednesday. “But in the meantime, I will negotiate with Democrats to see if we can make a bipartisan bill.”
It's all bizarre and not rooted in reality. Which makes both Democrats and Republicans skeptical of the president's words, which in turn makes them skeptical of his intentions, which is not a recipe for trust building and bipartisan dealmaking, two things Trump already seriously lacked with Congress.
“As with utterances from the President, we take it with a huge grain of salt,” said a Senate Democratic aide who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly.
It's not like Trump doesn't know how to make deals with Democrats. Earlier this month, Trump sided with them to lift the debt ceiling for three months, forcing Republicans to take another politically tough vote in December and giving Democrats negotiating room to protect “dreamers” and Obamacare.
Democrats say that was the first time Trump invited them into substantial policy discussions. Since then, Trump's held several bipartisan meetings with lawmakers.
But if he's so keen on cutting a deal, where are they? Republicans ask. Where's one to protect dreamers from deportation that Democratic leaders and Trump talked about? Where's one to permanently lift the debt ceiling, which Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Trump said they agreed to pursue?
On health care, Democrats have made pretty clear that “bipartisanship” to them translates to Republicans supporting work by Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.) to hold up Obamacare, not get rid of it. It's an open question if Trump's willing to do that since he keeps urging Republicans to get rid of it.
Trump seems just as intransigent on tax reform, which, ironically Democrats haven't ruled out compromise on. When the president announced an outline of a plan in Indiana this week, he appeared to threaten that state's vulnerable Democratic senator, Joe Donnelly, into voting for it.
“If Senator Donnelly doesn't approve it, because you know, he's on the other side, we will come here. We will campaign against him like you wouldn't believe,” Trump said.
On Thursday, his chief economic adviser Gary Cohn told reporters that the administration's “opening and final offer are on the table” in terms of corporate tax rates.
Even if Trump wanted to negotiate tax rates, he doesn't start this new bipartisan kick with any real working relationship with either side. Democrats saw him take a hard turn to the right on virtually every issue after becoming president, giving them much less room from their base to work with the president. He's repeatedly and publicly attacked Republican leadership. He changes his mind. A lot. In short, the president has proven himself an unreliable dealmaker.
“It's hard to tell how serious he is,” said Alice Rivlin, a former Clinton administration official and economics and health-care policy analyst with Brookings Institution. “He's made his deficit of trust bigger and bigger.”
We can see why Trump wants to talk about bipartisanship. The public likes it. A new Washington Post-ABC News poll found 56 percent of Americans think Trump has been doing too little to compromise with Democratic leaders on important issues. And 65 percent of Americans liked that he sided with Democrats on a debt-ceiling deal.
But for now, there's no evidence Trump's latest bipartisan kick is anything but a talking point.