In the run-up to the midterm elections, President Trump warned of an “invasion” of murderous thugs and potential terrorists pouring across the southern border. He called for ending birthright citizenship. He demonized House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) as dangerous and destructive. He promised to cut taxes on the middle class.
But in the nearly two weeks since the elections, Trump has abruptly changed tune — ditching the messages that advisers now acknowledge were crafted in a Hail Mary play to excite his base and stave off Republican losses.
Gone from the president’s talking points are dire threats about the caravan of Central American migrants that he had described as imminent and life-threatening, or the executive order he promised to sign ending the constitutional right to citizenship for children born in the United States to undocumented immigrants, or the phantom 10 percent middle-class tax cut that he said would pass easily.
Now that Democrats have seized the House majority, the president has added to his repertoire happy talk about cutting deals with Pelosi, who is in line to become speaker. He pledged his support last week for bipartisan criminal justice reform legislation. And he is telling advisers that he wants an infrastructure package soon — and that he thinks Democrats will go along with one.
Trump is fixated anew on the Russia probe, huddling with his lawyers to prepare written testimony for special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and pecking out all-caps tirades on Twitter. “A TOTAL WITCH HUNT LIKE NO OTHER IN AMERICAN HISTORY!” he wrote Thursday.
Trump’s shift in rhetoric and policy priorities is striking enough that this period of his presidency could be divided in two parts: Before and after Nov. 6.
“The whole point of effective rhetoric is to adapt to changing situations, and he is adapting,” said Martin J. Medhurst, a professor of rhetoric at Baylor University. “He’s doing it in a not terribly artful way, but he is adapting. . . . Governing awaits.”
In the wake of the election, Trump boasted in calls with outgoing House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) and advisers that he believed his performance on the campaign trail helped Republicans — even though voters in suburbs across the country voted for Democrats in a repudiation of Trump.
The president also told his advisers that he wants to strike a quick deal with Pelosi and that working with the Democrats could help keep their investigations of his conduct and his administration’s at bay, according to people familiar with the conversations. Trump also has been telling advisers that voters like the word “bipartisan.”
Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), a Trump confidant, said the president is talking a lot privately about a bipartisan infrastructure bill.
“A divided government presents challenges and opportunities,” Graham said. “I think he’s pretty excited about what we can do, about the dealmaking.”
Trump has proved over the years to be a shape-shifter when it is expedient, changing priorities or reversing his policy positions altogether to adapt to the political winds. Current and former advisers say the president believes his support among his base is so strong that he has cover to make deals as he sees fit, including with Democrats, even if it gives some of his aides pause.
Most presidents turn from campaign mode to governing mode, dialing down some of their partisan rhetoric in the interest of accomplishing things in office. But Trump’s shift has been unusually clear-cut, in part because his talk on the campaign trail was so hyperbolic and often unmoored from reality.
The centerpiece of Trump’s closing message to voters was the caravan, even though it was made up mostly of unarmed families fleeing violence in their homelands, seeking asylum and traveling by foot hundreds of miles away from the U.S.-Mexico border.
Trump beat his drum about the migrants on Twitter, at his “Make America Great Again” rallies and in a blitz of media interviews. He deployed thousands of U.S. troops to the border region to prepare for what he termed an “invasion.” And his political team released an advertisement that major television networks deemed too racist to air, featuring a Latino undocumented immigrant convicted of killing two police officers.
“If you don’t want America to be overrun by masses of illegal aliens and giant caravans, you better vote Republican,” Trump said at a rally five days before the election in Columbia, Mo.
Trump’s advisers and allies acknowledge that the president’s focus on the caravan was a campaign messaging tool. And since the election, he has largely stopped sounding the alarm — although he tweeted over the weekend about the caravan and urged the migrants to “Go home!”
“American politicians have always thinly veiled their tactics and come up with reasons why they are changing directions or switching positions, and with Trump, there is no subtlety, and there is no thin veil,” said one former White House official, who requested anonymity to speak candidly. “It’s raw power politics. It’s, ‘I’m doing this because it’s election time, and I know it will generate energy for my base, and now the election’s over, so I’m shifting in x, y and z way.’ ”
If his recent public utterances are any indication, Trump seems to have lost interest in the caravan compared with the run-up to the election — even though troops remain stationed at the border, where they were visited last week by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen. Though Trump’s advisers say illegal immigration remains top of mind for the president, he does not see a political benefit at the moment in talking about it.
Retired four-star Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey said, “It was without question a political stunt for the midterm elections. There was no — zero — national security issue at stake.”
Despite Trump’s campaign-trail talk about birthright citizenship, the White House is not actively pursuing the executive order the president said he would sign, according to two White House officials — although they predicted Trump would raise the issue again eventually.
These days, Trump is focused on the realigning power structure in Washington. He has signaled a new willingness to work with Democrats, whose leadership he described on the campaign trail in apocalyptic terms.
“The Democrats have become too extreme, and they’ve become, frankly, too dangerous to govern. They’ve gone wacko!” Trump said at a raucous October rally in Council Bluffs, Iowa, a line he repeated elsewhere on the stump. Again and again, he demonized Pelosi by name, as well as Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), who is poised to chair the House Financial Services Committee.
But the day after the election, Trump heaped praise on Pelosi and said he hoped to negotiate deals with the Democrats on infrastructure, health care and trade.
“The election’s over,” Trump said. “Now everybody is in love.”
During his trip to California on Saturday, Trump praised the state’s outgoing governor, Jerry Brown, and governor-elect, Gavin Newsom — both Democrats and outspoken critics of the president — for their leadership amid devastating wildfires.
Marc Short, Trump’s former White House legislative affairs director, said there is “an opportunity to get a significant amount done,” including legislation on infrastructure spending and prescription drug pricing.
“In some ways, the president’s policies line up more with Democrats,” Short said. “The president is always more receptive to the Democrat infrastructure plan. He had doubts about plans that his own White House produced. If Democrats can put together a plan, there are some people who say Republicans in the Senate wouldn’t support it. I just don’t think that is true.”
Last Wednesday, Trump threw his support behind criminal justice legislation that would loosen some mandatory minimum sentencing laws, which has been a priority for his son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, as well as powerful Senate Republicans and Democrats.
As Trump officially endorsed the First Step Act at a White House event, he said, “Today’s announcement shows that true bipartisanship is possible.”
The next day, however, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told Trump that the bill was unlikely to pass before the end of this calendar year, according to White House officials. Trump pushed McConnell to pass it soon, citing the bill’s popularity, but the Senate leader calculated that there was not enough time on the schedule to debate it.