Donald Trump held an extraordinary public negotiation on immigration reform with congressional leaders, during which he declined to commit himself to any particular policy but affirmed that he would sign off on whatever Congress sends him.
Lest you think I am unfairly interpreting the president’s words, here is what he said:
I think my positions are going to be what the people in this room come up with. I am very much reliant on the people in this room. I know most of the people on both sides, I have a lot of respect for the people on both sides, and what I approve is going to be very much reliant on what the people in this room come to me with. I have great confidence. If they come to me with things that I’m not in love with, I’m going to do it, because I respect them.
Which is to say, he has said he will sign immigration legislation inconsistent with his own principles, unless “things I’m not in love with” means something else.
Rush Limbaugh suggested that the public meeting was a response to the claims in the new Michael Wolff book, a political masterstroke designed to prove that he isn’t a raving mental incompetent and that “he is capable of running a meeting.” I know that I have counseled modesty in our expectations for presidents and other politicians, but “is capable of running a meeting” is a very low bar to clear.
Trump is in a tricky position. If the millstone of his unpopularity takes down the Republican majority in either house of Congress, his presidency will effectively be over, at least in terms of legislative advances. The people who most have his ear are successful business leaders, who as a class tend to be pretty liberal on immigration, along with liberal family members such as Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner. One temptation for Trump is to try to win some goodwill in Congress by knuckling under on some, and possibly much, of his immigration agenda — which is what he just said he intends to do — in exchange for a symbolic victory on wall funding. And he’s already talking back his position on the wall, conceding that there are substantial stretches of the border in which no wall is in fact necessary or even desirable.
If he sells them out, what’s the Trump base going to do? Vote for Elizabeth Warren? Unlikely. Dates as cheap as the Trump base don’t even get a text the next day.
What’s a self-respecting nationalist-populist to think? Steve Bannon is not only out but cast into the outer darkness, ridiculed by the president as a filthy hobo. Seb Gorka? Gone, along with much of the hardcore of Trumpism’s true believers. And Trump himself is saying — let’s repeat — “My positions are going to be what the people in this room come up with” — on immigration, his hallmark issue. Think about who the people in that room are.
Of course, the sycophants and apologists will insist that this is some sort of brilliant negotiating tactic, that Trump is playing 144D chess while reading The Art of War in the original with just his left eye. One wonders what they’ll have to show for it.