President Trump, facing a Congress that will become dramatically more antagonistic toward him in January, has begun courting Democrats who could determine whether his next two years are spent scoring legislative deals or staving off an onslaught of congressional investigations.
Trump’s charm offensive was on display Monday when he hosted Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) at the White House for a meeting that the two men had spent days trying to schedule. Over a lunch of chicken, green beans and mashed potatoes, Manchin preached bipartisanship — urging the president to work with lawmakers on ending a pension crisis affecting tens of thousands of coal miners nationwide, said Jonathan Kott, Manchin’s spokesman.
During the hour-and-a-half lunch, Manchin also suggested that Trump take a look at a comprehensive immigration bill the Senate passed in 2013 as another area of potential cooperation with Democrats — even though Trump has vehemently opposed the legislation and pursued tougher immigration policies while in office. Trump and Manchin were joined at the beginning of the meeting by Vice President Pence and the president’s daughter and adviser Ivanka Trump.
In a statement, Manchin called the lunch “productive.”
In recent days, Trump has invited the top Democratic congressional leaders to the White House amid a pressing government funding battle and privately told a Democratic senator he would consider legislation to help stem the loss of auto manufacturing jobs in Ohio.
Trump’s top aides have also been a regular presence on Capitol Hill, discussing legislative goals even as Democrats begin plotting investigations into an administration they argue has escaped serious congressional scrutiny.
The overtures are a signal that Trump and his White House are at least feeling out whether the self-professed dealmaker can find common ground with Democrats next year even as he faces pressure from Republicans to keep the opposition party at arm’s length.
“I’ve seen him when others advise not to make a deal and he moves ahead,” said Marc Short, the former White House legislative affairs director.
But others cautioned that Trump’s bipartisan urges can be episodic and fleeting — a dynamic of which lawmakers and his aides are well aware.
“When he thinks he needs to be bipartisan, he does it for a while,” one adviser said.
Trump’s relationship with Democrats on Capitol Hill will immediately be put to the test as he engages in a showdown over funding for a border wall and his administration begins to lobby lawmakers on a new trade deal with Canada and Mexico.
In both instances, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) — the top House Democrat who is presumed to become speaker again next year — and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) hold considerable sway, whether it’s delivering votes to ratify the new North American trade pact or knocking down Trump’s repeated demands for Congress to provide $5 billion in border-wall funding.
Trump had requested that Pelosi and Schumer meet with him at the White House this week. Aides said the White House did not specify any agenda, but the meeting has been put off until next week, after memorial services are held for former president George H.W. Bush, who died Friday.
In previous interactions with Trump, the two Democratic leaders have shown they can push the president toward their desired policy outcomes — and quickly set the narrative. Last year, Pelosi and Schumer left a White House dinner and eagerly put out word that Trump had agreed to a deal that would combine permanent protections for young undocumented immigrants with border security measures, only to have the administration dispute that any agreement had been reached.
Pelosi and Schumer would often skip the staff and try to meet with Trump, who would welcome a deal and emphatically support one.
“The president would learn the details and then would realize it was a bad deal,” a former administration official said.
Trade is another area that could be ripe for cooperation between Trump and congressional Democrats — leaving GOP leaders increasingly uneasy about Trump’s tendencies.
According to three Republicans involved in high-level trade discussions with the White House, Trump and Robert E. Lighthizer, the U.S. trade representative, have signaled privately in recent weeks that they are willing to engage seriously with Democratic leaders next year and are optimistic that some bipartisan agreement could be brokered on the new trade pact to bring Democrats on board.
Lighthizer has spoken encouragingly of Pelosi — who has repeatedly bucked presidents, including Barack Obama, on trade — to GOP lawmakers since her views are more likely to align with Trump’s and she could be willing to work with the administration, according to two Republicans briefed on those exchanges.
Last week, Pelosi — joking that the new North American pact “has some kind of gobbledygook name” — said the trade deal “formerly known as Prince” was still a work in progress.
“We are admiring of the trade representative and the attempts he has made to make sure that we are aware of what is in it,” Pelosi said. “But what isn’t in it yet is enough enforcement reassurances regarding provisions that relate to workers and to the environment. There also has not been a law passed in Mexico in terms of wages and working conditions in Mexico.”
Although government funding and a new trade agreement are the most immediate agenda items for the White House, the president has shown significant interest in recent weeks in a new infrastructure bill, advisers say.
The notion still has plenty of skeptics in the West Wing, with questions over how to pay for new projects. Yet Shahira Knight, Short’s successor as Trump’s main liaison to Capitol Hill, has told one key House Democrat that the president wants to pursue an infrastructure deal and acknowledges that it’ll take real money.
The president has also told advisers that Democrats also want to lower prices for prescription drugs — and it could be something that attracts wider support.
The White House outreach has only gone so far — particularly when it concerns committees and lawmakers more likely to be investigating the administration than cutting deals.
Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), the likely incoming chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, has heard “not a word” from the White House as he prepares to lead a panel that plans to scrutinize the administration’s immigration directives and response to natural disasters.
“I have been around from transitions of other administrations, and until this one, there was always outreach — just making sure things went well,” Thompson said. “But to my knowledge, there’s been no outreach.”
For now, Democrats who have been in touch with Trump or his aides are taking a cautiously optimistic approach to the outreach.
Last Wednesday, Trump phoned Sen. Sherrod Brown after the Ohio Democrat requested a call to discuss General Motors’s recent decision to shutter several auto plants, including one in northeastern Ohio. During the call, Brown, who also talks trade with Lighthizer, urged Trump to get behind legislation he drafted that would get rid of tax provisions that could incentivize companies to ship auto manufacturing jobs abroad.
Trump said he liked the bill, according to Brown’s retelling, and his office rushed a copy of the legislation over to the White House. But Brown has tried to negotiate with the White House before — notably on the tax legislation last year — only to find that Trump ultimately decided to shun bipartisan dealmaking and go toward a Republican-only approach.
Brown hopes that this time it’s different.
“He said he wants to fix it,” Brown said on CNN. “I take him at his word.”
Robert Costa contributed to this report.