A clash over immigration that has pushed the federal government to the brink of a shutdown is unfolding as a fierce tug of war — with President Trump as the rope.
Competing factions are vying for a public stamp of approval from a president driven by impulse and prone to contradiction. As Trump closes in on one year in office, lawmakers, aides and officials in both parties have learned that the right word, phrase or gesture could be enough to sway him to make up his mind — or change it dramatically.
On Thursday morning, Trump made yet another sudden swerve, disrupting sensitive talks to avert a shutdown with rapid-fire tweets on immigration and health care that raised new questions about his intentions.
People in frequent contact with the president have honed their pitches, looking for creative ways to grab his attention, win support for their ideas or praise him. Sensing that Trump is not loyal to ideology or party the way his predecessors were and that he can be — in the minds of his critics — manipulated, they have concluded that each high-stakes fight could easily go in a very different direction.
"He's a person who is susceptible to hearing different arguments and being persuaded by people who are making good arguments," said Senate Republican Conference Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.). "And I think in the end, he's a guy who wants to get to a deal. And so I think when people come in and make their case, it sometimes has an effect."
It is a dynamic that has played out repeatedly in Trump's negotiations with Congress — with mixed results and at the cost of stoking frustration among lawmakers left wondering where Trump will ultimately come down on major decisions.
"He's confused on immigration," said Louise Sunshine, a former Trump Organization executive who has known him for decades. "He's being torn in so many different directions, and he hasn't spent his entire life thinking about it. He's spent most of his life thinking about making money."
Sunshine added, "He has a lot of influences, a lot of people pulling at his strings."
Last week, Sens. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) and Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) rushed over to the White House with an immigration plan that they hoped Trump would agree to but that key White House aides moved to head off. White House officials grew angry that the senators were trying to meet with Trump alone.
"It was a positive response by the president," Durbin said this week, recounting a conversation with Trump. " 'Oh, good, you've reached an agreement. It's bipartisan.' And I said, 'Lindsey Graham's coming down to explain it.' He said: 'Fine, I want to move on this. I don't want to slow-walk it.' "
By the end of the day, hopes of an agreement had crumbled. A White House meeting turned contentious, with Trump at one point disparaging Haiti, El Salvador and African nations as "shithole countries," according to people briefed on the discussion. Trump's aides had enlisted conservative critics of the bill to join the meeting.
Trump has shown a willingness to move in the other direction as well. Last year, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) persuaded the president to overrule his treasury secretary and other Republicans on a debt-ceiling deal. Afterward, apologetic aides moved to clean up the damage.
Aides said Schumer was having so much luck because of his personal bonhomie with Trump, and they encouraged legislative leaders to make small talk or try to forge a personal connection. In one example earlier this year, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) brought Trump a personalized Louisville Slugger bat.
Democrats believe immigration, a signature issue for Trump in his campaign, has been a tough area to broker a compromise because it arouses strong feelings among some of his top advisers and his political base.
They have carefully sought to package their ideas in a way they believe will not upset the talks. In a news release issued last fall after Schumer and Pelosi had dinner with Trump, for example, Democrats mentioned DACA, referring to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, rather than "dreamers," the nickname used by advocates of those at risk of deportation. They calculated that the latter term is not one favored by the president and his team and could exacerbate negotiations, according to a senior Democratic aide.
"I think it's the style of Donald Trump. This is a guy who built his entire career in real estate on being willing to walk away and not do a deal and go with someone else," said a Republican official who requested anonymity to speak candidly. The official said the best way to get Trump on your side is to tell him: " 'Here's how we get a win.' He wants to win."
Trump tweeted Thursday that the Children's Health Insurance Program "should be part of a long term solution, not a 30 Day, or short term, extension!" With less than 48 hours until the deadline to prevent government services from lapsing, his message added confusion to the talks, since Republican leaders added the CHIP funding to a stopgap spending measure to pressure Democrats to support it.
The president also reiterated his hard-line immigration posture, including advocating a massive wall along the U.S.-Mexican border, potentially further complicating efforts to strike a bipartisan deal.
Trump is often swayed by the last person he speaks with or sees on television, particularly if a person praises him.
Author Michael Wolff was startled last February to get a phone call after appearing on CNN's "Reliable Sources." It was the president, who liked Wolff's defense of him and his scathing critique of the White House press corps.
Trump, according to people familiar with the call, told Wolff he was one of the best journalists alive — if not the best — and heaped praise on him, even though he knew very little about Wolff.
Wolff said little in return but pitched Trump on a book. It published earlier this month, presenting an unflattering portrayal of Trump and his team.
"Accurate," Wolff said in an email when asked about the chat. He added: "It's not necessary, or often possible, to respond. Conversations with Trump are pretty one-sided."
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) had a meeting with Trump, Graham and Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) during the height of tax-policy talks last year. Seeking support for health-care initiatives she was pushing, Collins said she went to the meeting with charts and graphics to make her case — knowing Trump's preference for visual information.
At a follow-up meeting with the entire Senate Republican Conference, Trump declared his support for the provisions Collins sought.
Hours before Congress was supposed to pass an omnibus spending bill earlier this year for Trump to sign, the president saw a segment on the show "Fox and Friends" questioning the spending bill and calling it wasteful.
Trump called House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) and threatened to veto the bill, saying it would be damaging to him to sign it. An alarmed Ryan told Trump he had to sign the bill and had others call Trump as well, afraid of a last-minute government shutdown. The president eventually signed the bill.
Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) once recounted the story of an appearance he made on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" during the campaign. Trump saw his appearance, he said, and called to thank him for defending him on television. Since then Cole has occupied an influential role as a defender of the president and an ally of House GOP leadership.
Trump had been sharply critical of AT&T and had opposed its merger with Time Warner but began praising the company to associates after it announced it was giving bonuses to workers because of the tax bill he signed.
Beyond Capitol Hill, aides to the president have grown angry when Trump's friend Christopher Ruddy has brought journalists to the bar at Mar-a-Lago or to the golf club, afraid Trump will make candid comments or speak in an unscripted fashion.
This week, there has been agreement among key congressional Republicans that Trump needed to demonstrate what kind of immigration bill he would endorse.
"He's not yet indicated what measure he's willing to sign," McConnell said. "As soon as we figure out what he is for, then I would be convinced that we were not just spinning our wheels going to this issue on the floor but actually dealing with a bill that has a chance to become law."
Graham, whose plan has met serious opposition from some GOP colleagues, said he was convinced that if the president signed off on it, everything else would fall into place.
"All I can say is it will pass the House if the president supports it," Graham said.
Durbin was asked Wednesday how he could negotiate with someone who oscillates as much as the president does.
"I don't know," he responded.
Paul Kane contributed to this report.