Just after Labor Day, President Trump made two moves that pleased Democrats and worried Republicans. He sided with the Democrats on legislation to lift the federal government’s debt ceiling. He also seemed to call on Congress to grant an amnesty to illegal immigrants who were brought to this country as minors, and vaguely suggested that if Congress did not act he might grant it himself.
These moves set off another of the feverish rounds of speculation that have been a regular feature of Washington, D.C., under Trump. Was the president preparing to ditch congressional Republicans and not just criticize their leaders on Twitter? Were there other deals that Trump could reach with congressional Democrats? Would this strategy enable him to accomplish more of his agenda and raise his popularity?
It is probably a mistake, however, to think that Trump is following a new strategy of working with the Democrats or one of playing the parties against each other. Congressional Republicans should not worry too much about those possibilities. What Trump’s behavior showed, though, ought to worry them enough: Trump is frustrated with how little he has achieved working with them, and he has not come up with any solutions for his predicament.
One reason to think that Trump is acting out of impulse rather than strategy is that he was in a better position to fulfill a top campaign promise before he made these overtures to Democrats. For months he has been demanding that Congress provide funding for a wall on the Mexican border, even suggesting that he might shut down the government with a budget veto if it did not.
In early September, he created an opportunity to get Democrats to agree to that funding. President Obama had given an amnesty to the illegal immigrants who came here as minors. Republicans had criticized him at the time: some because they object to any amnesty on principle, but most because they considered it beyond the president’s legitimate power to act without congressional authorization. President Trump said he would halt Obama’s policy in six months, giving Congress time to enact an amnesty the right way. Since Democrats wanted the amnesty more than Republicans while Republicans could live with it, a deal was possible: Congress could grant the amnesty and fund the wall. A deal was not inevitable, since Democrats could decide that they cannot live with a wall, or work with Trump. But the need to secure Republican cooperation on the amnesty could bring them to the table.
By tweeting that Congress had six months to legalize DACA, that he might “revisit” his decision to end Obama’s, and — at Nancy Pelosi’s suggestion! — that the affected illegal immigrants had nothing to fear, Trump made that deal much less likely. He told the Democrats, in effect, that they would get the amnesty they want without having to build the wall. (He also undercut those, including his own attorney general and his White House spokesmen, who had said that Obama’s amnesty had to end because it is unconstitutional.)
Trump could still use the threat of a shutdown to try to get funding for the wall. It does not seem likely to work: Democrats would probably just expect any political trouble from the shutdown to accrue to Republicans, since their party controls the White House and Congress and their leader has been talking about precipitating it. But Trump seems to have reduced the likelihood of this scenario, too, by agreeing with the Democrats on the debt limit. (He did not make a “deal” with them; he simply sided with them rather than engaging in any give-and-take.)
So wall funding seems to be as far off as ever. Neither Paul Ryan nor Mitch McConnell is likely to lose much sleep over that fact: Like most Republican elected officials, they have evinced less enthusiasm for the wall than Trump has. Trump’s overtures to Democrats have set back his own stated goals, which are also the goals of many of his most fervent supporters, more than they have set back the goals of the congressional leadership.
This result should give pause to those supporters about a view that has become an article of faith among them: that Trump is not getting his agenda into law mainly because congressional Republicans have been letting him down. Steve Bannon, the recently fired Trump aide, told 60 Minutes that Ryan and McConnell were “trying to nullify the 2016 election,” citing among other things their opposition to protectionist tariffs. A lot of free-traders were elected or, like Ryan, reelected in 2016 too, of course, and may not see why they should consider Trump’s election to have nullified theirs.
Anyway, Ryan has not been blocking protectionist legislation: Trump has not proposed any. Nor has Trump done everything he could outside Congress to get tariffs. He has hired some free-traders for top positions and fired one of his top protectionist aides: Bannon himself. Bannon’s surface complaint is that congressional Republicans are not letting Trump be Trump. His real complaint is that Trump isn’t Bannon.
Bannon has also expressed discontent on Obamacare. Congress has considered only modifications to Obama’s law, not a true repeal and replacement, and has failed to pass even those modifications. It is a complaint with which most conservatives will agree. Congressional leaders surely deserve some blame for this inaction, even if it is implausible to suppose they have failed because they lacked commitment to Trump.
F. H. Buckley, a law professor at George Mason University, is another strong supporter of Trump who believes that Ryan has been an anchor pulling down the Trump presidency. But his idea of a liberated Trump is in some respects the opposite of Bannon’s: He wants Trump to embrace a single-payer health-care system akin to the one in Buckley’s native Canada.
This disagreement suggests that there is no pure Trumpist program waiting to be enacted once the Republican establishment gives way. Is Trump a Bannonite or an (F. H.) Buckleyite? Neither. President Trump is a golfer, as Russell Kirk said of President Eisenhower in another context. Nobody needs to let Trump be Trump: He has never been anything else. Being Trump has obviously served him very well in life, and especially over the last two years.
But Trump’s actions on the debt limit and the amnesty illustrate how some of his traits can impede his ability to deliver on his promises to his core voters. It is much more plausible that he acted on impulse than from strategy. He did not like the bad press he got after his initial announcement that he was canceling the amnesty; he is irritated at McConnell and Ryan for various slights and failures; Pelosi and Chuck Schumer probably flattered him. (It has been reported that he mentioned to those Democrats the good press they got over the debt limit.)
Impulse could turn into strategy as Trump finds that continuing to side with the Democrats will get him even more good press. But that would at best be a strategy for enhancing his own popularity, not one for making Ryan, Bannon, or Buckley happy. And if Trump’s undercutting of congressional Republicans contributes to their losing the House in 2018, the president might discover that there are worse frustrations than having Ryan as Speaker.