It was an astonishing moment Tuesday, at Trump's televised "negotiation" with congressional leaders on immigration, when Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D- Calif.) asked whether the president would support a "clean" or stand-alone bill providing relief for the estimated 700,000 "dreamers" who were brought to the United States illegally when they were children. Legislation that would let them stay is known in Washington acronym-speak as DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.
"I have no problem . . . We're going to do DACA, and then we can start immediately on the phase two, which would be comprehensive," Trump said. When Feinstein asked again if he would be agreeable to this approach, Trump said, "Yeah, I would like to do that. I think a lot of people would like to see that. But I think we have to do DACA first."
Republicans around the table freaked out. Trump had adopted the Democrats' position and abandoned his own, which is, or was, that any action to help the dreamers had to be accompanied by tough-on-immigration measures — such as funding for Trump's border wall. (Never mind that Mexico was supposed to pay for the wall, according to Trump's campaign rhetoric.)
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) quickly jumped in to clarify that what the president obviously meant by "yes" was "no."
The televised part of the session lasted 55 minutes, and the president seemed uncharacteristically agreeable throughout. As in, agreeable to anything: He actually said at one point that he would sign whatever immigration bill the assembled legislators managed to pass.
On another issue, the White House made clear what it wanted Congress to do about the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act: reject a measure that would restrict the government's ability to conduct domestic surveillance of Americans. But on Thursday, Trump undercut his own position with a morning tweet:
" 'House votes on controversial FISA ACT today.' This is the act that may have been used, with the help of the discredited and phony Dossier, to so badly surveil and abuse the Trump Campaign by the previous administration and others?"
So it sounded as if Trump might be in favor of limiting potential FISA abuses. But a couple of hours later, the president tweeted again to say, basically, never mind. It was widely speculated that the first, rogue tweet had been prompted by a headline crawling by on "Fox & Friends."
When Trump convened a Cabinet meeting Wednesday, he had an odd greeting for the media pool that had been admitted to cover the session: "Welcome back to the studio."
Could he actually see the West Wing as a television studio? Or as being similar enough to a studio that he confuses the two? In December, the New York Times reported something that made my jaw drop: "Before taking office, Mr. Trump told top aides to think of each presidential day as an episode in a television show in which he vanquishes rivals."
I want to be fair here. Of course all presidents would rather win fights than lose them, and, since they're politicians, they want to be seen as winning those fights. But seeing each day as an "episode" of a reality-show presidency is a recipe for chaos, inconsistency, discontinuity, incoherence — a recipe for what we've seen in the first year of the Trump presidency.
Tuesday's immigration summit was "the episode in which Trump shows he's a serious leader involved in weighty issues, not the looney-tunes airhead depicted in Michael Wolff's book." Wednesday's Cabinet meeting was "the episode in which Trump shows his leadership but this time doesn't contradict his own policy."
Needless to say, this is no way to run a country. But it may be all the Trump administration is capable of.
Trump had no ideas for reshaping the health-care system, with the result that Obamacare is still in place. He had no ideas for reshaping tax policy except "cut, cut, cut," with the result that Republicans came up with a bill that balloons the national debt while offering caviar to the rich and peanuts to the middle class.
They say ignorance is bliss. Trump must be very happy.
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