At 6:11 Thursday morning, President Trump tweeted that despite news reports to the contrary, he and Democratic congressional leaders had reached “no deal” on protections for young undocumented immigrants brought here as children.
At 6:20 a.m., after a night of fretting by his supporters, he tweeted that the big, beautiful border wall he had long promised “will continue to be built.”
Then, at 6:28 a.m., he tweeted a duo of missives outlining the very deal he claimed didn’t exist.
The tweets underscore the sense of chaos the president brings to bear on just about everything he encounters — a Midas touch of low-grade uncertainty he seems to sow in others and exhibit himself while operating comfortably from within the maelstrom.
Eight months into his presidency, Trump may still do what he boasted about on the campaign trail but has yet to achieve: emerge as the magnanimous bipartisan dealmaker who can bring the swamp together.
On Wednesday night, in a Blue Room dinner at the White House with Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), the president reached a tentative agreement with the Democratic leaders: The young undocumented immigrants known as “dreamers” would be allowed to stay in the country in exchange for a border security package that does not include funding for Trump’s wall.
But even as Trump careens toward the sort of immigration deal that has eluded previous presidents — the latest capstone to a period of 10 days of sustained bipartisan overtures — the process exhibits certain Trumpian hallmarks: namely, a lack of clarity.
Often, Trump’s underlings, friends, foes and allies never know quite where he stands — in part because of the president’s penchant for telling his immediate audience exactly what they want to hear in any given moment. People who meet with the president frequently leave buoyed, an optimism punctured by a nagging question mere hours later: What just happened?
On Wednesday evening, as news of the agreement trickled out, Hill staffers sat glued to Twitter trying to discern that very query as aides to both sides scrambled to explain what, in the end, turned out to be disagreements that were largely semantics.
Referring to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which protects the dreamers, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders took to Twitter after 10 p.m., writing, “While DACA and border security were both discussed, excluding the wall was certainly not agreed to.”
This prompted Schumer’s spokesman to reply to her tweet with a further explanation: “The President made clear he would continue pushing the wall, just not as part of this agreement,” he wrote.
For those on the outside, head-scratching ensued.
On Thursday morning, speaking to reporters aboard Air Force One as Trump traveled to Florida to view damage caused by Hurricane Irma, a White House spokeswoman further muddied the already confused situation, saying: “The president has been clear that there will be no amnesty” before adding that the administration’s plan for immigration changes “could include legal citizenship over time.”
In just 24 hours, the issue unfurled a bit like a madcap comedy: frantic, scattershot and befuddled — though headed toward a potentially tidy resolution.
Act One was the dinner itself, a meal of honey sesame crispy beef, sticky rice and chocolate cream pie for dessert, with Schumer and Pelosi flanking Trump on both sides. Schumer — who is known on the Hill for his takeout orders from Hunan Dynasty during long nights at the Capitol — had discussed his love of Chinese food with the president in previous conversations, and the meal also represented their shared hard-line view on trade with China.
At one point, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross asked, “What exactly does the president get out of this deal?” As Pelosi, the only woman at the table of 11, tried to make her point — that the president gets the cooperation of the Democrats, which he will likely need on a host of issues — the men in the room began talking over her and one another.
“Do the women get to talk around here?” Pelosi interjected, according to two people familiar with the exchange.
There was, at last, silence, and she was not interrupted again.
Act Two was the initial Democratic exuberance, first in the form of a statement Wednesday night from “Chuck and Nancy,” as Trump has dubbed his Democratic pals, who touted the “very productive meeting” and wrote: “We agreed to enshrine the protections of DACA into law quickly, and to work out a package of border security, excluding the wall, that’s acceptable to both sides.”
On Thursday, Schumer was caught on an open mic on the Senate floor, giddily enthusing: “He likes us,” the senior New York senator said, referring to the president. “He likes me, anyway.”
But this act also included fleeting portraits of the angry and exasperated Republicans, including a curt statement from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and a news conference with House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (Wis.) saying, “I’m not going to negotiate through the media.”
The problem, of course, is that Republican leaders don’t seem to be negotiating with their president.
“He’s just not a good negotiator,” griped one Hill Republican, speaking on the condition of anonymity to offer a candid assessment of Trump. “They got out-hustled by the Democrats in how they’re framing this.”
Act Three — and, really, the entire show — was Trump himself, holding forth throughout the day, on Twitter and on camera.
“Does anybody really want to throw out good, educated and accomplished young people who have jobs, some serving in the military?” he wrote early Thursday morning. “They have been in our country for many years through no fault of their own — brought in by parents at young age. Plus BIG border security.”
Once in Florida, he weighed in again, saying, “No, we’re not looking at citizenship. We’re not looking at amnesty. We’re looking at allowing people to stay here.”
On the flight back to Washington, he reiterated that he still plans to build a wall — Democrats, he said, “can’t obstruct the wall” — even if it isn’t part of the DACA deal, and he said he has Republican support for his plans.
“My relationship with Republicans is excellent,” he said. “Many of them agree with what I am doing.”
The immigration episode raised nearly as many questions as it answered. But for now, perhaps the most important one remains: Is a deal by any other name — like, say, “no deal,” as the president described on Twitter — really a deal?
The verdict is still out, but those who know Trump say people shouldn’t be surprised if the answer is yes.
“He’s always been a compromiser, an independent centrist at heart, even as he’s gone to the right on some but not all issues,” said Christopher Ruddy, chief executive of Newsmax and a Trump confidant. “Everyone is so shocked, but this is who he is.”
Robert Costa contributed to this report.