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55 minutes at the table: Trump tries to negotiate and prove stability

The Debrief: An occasional series offering insights from reporters

President Trump hosted Republican and Democratic lawmakers at the White House on Jan. 9 for talks on immigration policy. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

He acted the part, listening intently and guiding the conversation with the control of a firm but open-minded executive. He spoke the part, offering a mix of jesting bon mots and high-minded appeals for bipartisanship. And he looked the part, down to the embroidered "45" on his starched white shirt cuff.

In short, President Trump on Tuesday tried to show that he could do his job. 

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With his afternoon immigration meeting with lawmakers — into which he invited the press corps to watch for nearly an hour — Trump sought to definitively answer the question that has been nagging at him for the past week: Is the 71-year-old mentally fit to be commander in chief?

President Trump on Jan. 9 said he wants Congress to pass a “bill of love” to address DACA and border security. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

And for the 55 minutes that the scene unfolded on television, the president demonstrated stability, although not necessarily capability. In trying to erase one set of queries (is he up for the job and a "very stable genius," as he claimed on Twitter?), he inadvertently opened another: What, exactly, is going to be in that immigration bill?

On that, Trump left a cliffhanger.

The former reality television star made the unilateral decision to allow journalists toting cameras and audio recorders into the West Wing's Cabinet Room to watch him talk with lawmakers about one of the most in­trac­table and polarizing issues facing the government — what to do with the nearly 700,000 young undocumented immigrants known as "dreamers." Their work permits are set to expire March 5 because of Trump's decision to revoke President Barack Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program.

And while Trump offered captivating television drama, he also muddled through the policy by seeming to endorse divergent positions, including simply protecting the dreamers or a plan contingent upon funding for his long-promised wall at the nation's southern border.

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"I think my positions are going to be what the people in this room come up with," Trump said. "I am very much reliant on the people in this room."

So pliant was Trump that when Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), one of the most liberal members of the chamber, asked if he would support "a clean DACA bill" that protects the dreamers with no other conditions, the president sounded amenable. 

"Yeah, I would like to do it," Trump said.

Trump's apparent concession so alarmed House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) that he interjected himself, although he was careful only to gently contradict the president, who in the past has referred to him as "my Kevin."

"Mr. President, you need to be clear, though," McCarthy said, leaning over from his perch to Trump's left. "I think what Senator Feinstein is asking here — when we talk about just DACA, we don't want to be back here two years later. You have to have security."

Later, again attempting to nudge the president back on track to a more conservative plan, Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) made a similar pitch for precision. "We have to be very clear, though," Perdue urged. 

McCarthy apparently was not the only one concerned by Trump's seeming agreement with Feinstein. When the White House released its official transcript Tuesday afternoon, the president's line — "Yeah, I would like to do it" — was missing.

A White House official said that any omission from the transcript was unintentional and that the context of the conversation was clear.

Later, when Trump offered a clarification — "We do a Phase 1, which is DACA and security, and we do Phase 2, which is comprehensive immigration" — a relieved-looking McCarthy all but leaped from his seat, pointing at Trump like a teacher whose promising student, after several false starts, finally has alighted on the correct answer. 

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Yet the president's plans were so nebulous that as the confab wrapped up, Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) was still pressing for more specifics. "You want $18 billion for a wall, or else there will be no DACA. Is that still your position?" she asked. "And can you tell us how many miles of wall you're contemplating? Whether it's $17 million or $13 million or whatever is — can you tell us?"

Trump staged the meeting as a showcase of his desire to cut a deal with Democrats. He cast himself as a bipartisan statesman, saying he'd had a similar gathering the previous week with only Republican lawmakers and was eager to add Democrats to the mix. 

Originally, there was no plan for a photo opportunity, let alone a 55-minute one, a White House official said. Trump's daily schedule listed the meeting as "closed press." The lawmakers also were not expecting any media coverage.

Trump sat at the table's center, between two Democratic leaders who have been outspoken advocates for the dreamers — Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin (Ill.) and House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (Md.) — and set the tone at the outset by calling for "a bill of love."

The president's bipartisan bonhomie sparked immediate backlash on the political right. On Breitbart News, a conservative website that positions itself as the mouthpiece of Trump's base, coverage of the meeting featured a photo of Trump reaching out to high-five Jeb Bush — the former Florida governor who has been pilloried by the party's grass roots, as well as by Trump, for his support of immigration reform — under a headline that blared "amnesty."

Trump also chose the role of potential martyr. Suggesting that the group tackle broad immigration reform, Trump told the lawmakers, "I'll take all the heat you want to give me, and I'll take the heat off both the Democrats and the Republicans."

"My whole life has been heat," he concluded.

Trump urges Congress to pass ‘bill of love’ to protect ‘dreamers’ but reiterates demand for border wall

In one of several revealing moments, Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), a staunch conservative, spoke of helping the "vulnerable" dreamers who had been brought to the United States through "no fault of their own."

Grassley's impassioned plea prompted Hoyer to say of himself and Durbin, "Mr. President, let me just say, I think Dick and I agree with what Charles E. Grassley just said." 

Trump was ready with a rejoinder: "When was the last time that happened?" he asked, prompting laughter. 

Lawmakers left the meeting encouraged if confounded. 

"This was the most fascinating meeting I've been involved with in 20-plus years in politics," Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said in a statement.

Before leaving the White House, Durbin told reporters he had enjoyed a "unique meeting" in a "positive sense."

"My head is spinning," the Democrat said. 

During the meeting, Trump repeatedly broke the fourth wall to address the fourth estate, acknowledging his real audience beyond the members of Congress. 

"I like opening it up to the media because I think they're seeing, more than anything else, that we're all very much on a similar page," Trump said.

Typically, reporters are let in to such meetings for only a few minutes at the beginning. But the president sometimes has remarked afterward to aides that reporters missed the best parts, according to one top White House official.

As he excused the press corps, Trump said: "I hope we've given you enough material. That should cover you for about two weeks."

The president was onto something. The transcript ran more than 11,000 words and left reporters drained — literally.

Ken Thomas, who covers the White House for the Associated Press, said on Twitter that when he entered the meeting, his iPhone was almost fully charged. But by the time he left, after firing off dispatches, his phone was flashing red.

"My battery," he wrote, "was down to 9 percent."

Josh Dawsey and David Nakamura contributed to this report.