Trump bets base will stick with him on immigration

President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump claims media 'smeared' students involved in encounter with Native American man Al Sharpton criticizes Trump’s ‘secret’ visit to MLK monument Gillibrand cites spirituality in 2020 fight against Trump’s ‘dark’ values MORE is betting that his base will give him wide latitude to pursue an immigration deal with Democrats despite the outburst of anger from prominent voices on the right.

Conservative pundits like Ann Coulter and Laura Ingraham denounced Trump’s pursuit of an agreement as a betrayal. GOP Rep. Steve King (Iowa) warned the president risked fracturing his base. 

But other prominent Trump supporters, including pundits Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh and the hosts of “Fox and Friends,” gave him cover.

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Limbaugh blamed the news media for peddling a false narrative about the president’s dinner last week with Democratic leaders, where a plan to help young immigrants living in the U.S. illegally was discussed.

“They want you to think Trump has sold you out and thrown you under the bus,” Limbaugh told his listeners Thursday. “The media wants you to believe that Trump is acquiescing to the Democrat agenda just so he can do deals and just so there can be something done.”

Many of the conservatives criticizing Trump were cheering him just a week earlier, when he followed through on his promise to phase out the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. The Obama-era program shields hundreds of thousand of immigrants from deportation.

But the president appears to be having second thoughts, turning to House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and Senate Democratic Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerProtecting our judiciary must be a priority in the 116th Congress Baldwin's Trump plays 'Deal or No Deal' with shutdown on 'Saturday Night Live' Sunday shows preview: Shutdown negotiations continue after White House immigration proposal MORE (N.Y.) to help him enshrine the program in law in exchange for enhanced border security measures. The trade-off might not include funding for Trump’s proposed wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

The budding alliance with Democrats on immigration is emerging as a test of whether Trump’s personality or his policies are what put him over the top in last year’s presidential election.

Trump enjoys strong backing from his core supporters: 98 percent of Republicans who voted for him in the 2016 primary still support him, according to a recent NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll.

That support is unlikely to wane if Trump eventually signs legislation protecting young immigrants, several allies say.

“I think ultimately they stay with him,” said a former campaign aide. “Ultimately, his base isn’t predicated on repealing DACA. It’s predicated on giving communities in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan a voice.”

Trump’s voters have stuck with him through controversies that could have ended the careers of other politicians, including his response to the violence at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., and the “Access Hollywood” tape, in which he is heard bragging about groping women without their consent.

But if Trump does go back on key campaign promises, it could present a different kind of challenge for him.

As a candidate, Trump energized his supporters with his pledges to scrap DACA, deport the roughly 11 million immigrants living illegally in the U.S. and build a wall along the southern border to stop them from entering. Immigration, in short, was perhaps the biggest animating force of his candidacy.

King tweeted that if reports of the president’s dealings are correct, “Trump base is blown up, destroyed, irreparable, and disillusioned beyond repair. No promise is credible.”

But the president expressed confidence Republicans would stick with him even if he helps DACA recipients, telling reporters Thursday many are “very, very happy with what we’re doing.”

The former campaign adviser endorsed Trump’s view, saying his support is “not tied to a specific policy, it’s tied to disrupting, it’s tied to shaking up the status quo.”

“That’s what the base likes, bringing disruption to a city that has been mired in gridlock,” the aide said. 

On Friday, Trump tacitly acknowledged his newfound love for bipartisanship carries political risk.

The president rallied supporters with a string of tough-talking early morning tweets on the terror attack at London subway station and an ESPN host who called him a white supremacist.

He also reassured his backers that “CHAIN MIGRATION cannot be allowed to be part of any legislation on Immigration!” The term refers to the practice of immigrants with legal status sponsoring certain family members so that they can come to the U.S. 

Yet some of Trump’s allies continue to question why he seems to be prioritizing a top issue for Democrats, the status of immigrants in the U.S. illegally, over his campaign promise to build a border wall.

By not demanding wall funding be attached to a DACA bill, Trump supporters say he is giving away his most valuable bargaining chip in exchange for vague promises of stronger border security from Schumer and Pelosi.

Trump once bragged that his supporters are so loyal, he could shoot someone in the street and he would not lose support. Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, said Trump’s proposed DACA deal would put that notion to the test. 

“Donald Trump would have been better off going onto Fifth Avenue and shooting someone,” said Stein, whose group favors lower levels of both legal and illegal immigration. “He said his base wouldn’t care if he did that. The base cares about this.”

Stein speculated the president might be “convinced that dealing on DACA will win him new supporters” who could help him win in 2020.

The former campaign aide said Trump’s supporters wouldn’t have a better option in 2020, regardless of what he does on immigration.

“It’s not 2016 Trump against 2020 Trump,” the aide said. “It’s Trump running against [Sens.] Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann Warren2020 Dems seize on MLK Day for campaign messaging Kamala Harris staffer mocks O'Reilly for saying Harris 'lost' his vote for president Kamala Harris announces presidential campaign MORE or Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) Sanders2020 Dems seize on MLK Day for campaign messaging Sanders knocks Trump in MLK Day speech Grassley to test GOP on lowering drug prices MORE, and it’s not like these voters would run to vote for the other side.”

In the short term, conservatives' anger at Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellGraham angers Dems by digging into Clinton, Obama controversies Senate GOP eyes 'nuclear option' for Trump nominees next week Taiwan’s President Tsai should be invited to address Congress MORE (R-Ky.) and Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanTrump once asked Paul Ryan why he couldn’t be ‘loyal': book AEI names Robert Doar as new president GOP can't excommunicate King and ignore Trump playing to white supremacy and racism MORE (R-Wis.) has provided a buffer for Trump against the backlash from his base.

Frustration with the GOP leaders gave Trump room to break with them and strike an agreement with Democrats on a deal to extend the nation’s borrowing limit and fund the government.

That dynamic could persist until Republicans begin notching legislative victories of their own.

“He has such a diverse coalition and his base elected him knowing that he isn’t overly ideological,” said a GOP consultant who requested anonymity. “Poll after poll shows that Republicans will blame Ryan and McConnell every single time, so he has leeway here.” 

But the consultant warned that cover might not last forever, because “it’s never a good sign to have key influencers turn their backs.”

Key figures on the right warn that immigration is a different animal from other policy areas.

Trump’s tough talk on the issue was a major reason why the right rallied behind him in 2016 over GOP establishment figures like former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) and Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioRussian oligarch, allies retain key ownership in company after sanctions lifted: report Senate GOP eyes 'nuclear option' for Trump nominees next week Washington fears new threat from 'deepfake' videos MORE (R-Fla.). 

“He succeeded in the primary because of immigration,” Stein said. “He would not have won the primary if he had taken a stance on DACA amnesty, [Sen.] Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzGroup aiming to draft Beto O’Rourke unveils first 2020 video Howard Dean looking for a 'younger, newer' Democratic nominee in 2020 Congress can stop the war on science MORE would have won. The base simply will not accept this.”