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The Memo: Trump’s volatility scrambles prospects of a deal on DACA

The Memo: Trump’s volatility scrambles prospects of a deal on DACA
© Greg Nash

The search for a deal on spending and immigration has been pitched into chaos by the controversy over President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump State Department appointee arrested in connection with Capitol riot Intelligence community investigating links between lawmakers, Capitol rioters Michelle Obama slams 'partisan actions' to 'curtail access to ballot box' MORE’s reported use of a vulgarity to describe other nations.

Although the storm over the president’s reference to “shithole countries” has been unusually intense, it is part of a long-established pattern wherein Trump behaves in a volatile way amid delicate negotiations.

During the ultimately failed quest to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, also known as ObamaCare, Trump held a White House event to celebrate a House bill, only to later describe that Republican proposal as “mean.”

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During an earlier phase of talks about government spending last September, he stunned his own party colleagues by undercutting them and striking a deal with “Chuck and Nancy” — Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerRon Johnson forces reading of 628-page Senate coronavirus relief bill on floor Senate panel splits along party lines on Becerra House Democrats' ambitious agenda set to run into Senate blockade MORE (D-N.Y.) and House Minority Leader Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiOvernight Defense: Capitol Police may ask National Guard to stay | Biden's Pentagon policy nominee faces criticism | Naval Academy midshipmen moved to hotels Top Republican: 'Outrageous' to extend National Guard deployment at Capitol Progressives won't oppose bill over limits on stimulus checks MORE (D-Calif.) — instead.

And, even before the most recent drama, it was not clear what Trump’s bottom-line position actually is on the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

On the campaign trail, he had promised to get rid of it, but the month after his inauguration he said he would “deal with DACA with heart.”

When Trump did announce the ending of the program in September, he also suggested that Congress ought to find a fix for the nearly 800,000 people who enjoy its protections.

DACA beneficiaries entered the United States illegally as minors, and the program gives them protection from deportation and the right to work legally.

The president’s zigzags make the already fraught efforts to reach an agreement all the more difficult, according to some observers.

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“Getting members to do something they don’t want to do requires presidential leadership,” said longtime GOP strategist Alex Conant. “If congressional Republicans don’t think Trump will have their back, they won’t give an inch and that makes a deal more difficult.”

The situation is urgent, since the government will shut down at midnight on Friday unless a spending deal is reached. At one point, it looked as if a DACA fix would be incorporated into a long-term spending measure. But as optimism has dimmed, a short-term continuing resolution without a DACA component has become more likely.

While a White House meeting on DACA last Thursday was dominated by reports that Trump had used the term “shithole,” the broader dynamics also suggested there are divisions at high levels of the administration over the issue.

A Washington Post report on Monday indicated that Sens. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamRon Johnson grinds Senate to halt, irritating many Here's who Biden is now considering for budget chief House Democratic leaders back Shalanda Young for OMB after Tanden withdrawal MORE (R-S.C) and Dick DurbinDick DurbinWhat's worse, violence on the left or the right? It's a dangerous question Garland's AG nomination delayed by GOP roadblocks National Sheriffs' Association backs Biden pick for key DOJ role MORE (D-Ill.) had gone to the White House to present a potential deal — one to which the president had initially seemed amenable. When they got to the White House, however, they were apparently surprised to find immigration hard-liners including Sens. Tom CottonTom Bryant CottonRepublicans blast Pentagon policy nominee over tweets, Iran nuclear deal The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Lawmakers face Capitol threat as senators line up votes for relief bill Garland's AG nomination delayed by GOP roadblocks MORE (R-Ark.) and David Purdue (R-Ga.) present, along with a much more hostile Trump.

Graham described the overall situation as an “s-show” during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Tuesday. The South Carolinian said that he had seen a much more moderate Trump earlier last week, adding ruefully, “I don’t know where that guy went. I want him back.”

Graham also asserted that Trump had received “really bad advice” from someone inside the White House. The comment was interpreted inside the Beltway as a shot across the bow of either Stephen Miller, a presidential counselor known for his vigorous views on immigration, or Trump’s chief of staff, John KellyJohn Francis KellyMORE.

But for all the back and forth, some Washington insiders caution against making too much of every new Trump controversy, at least with respect to how those furors affect Capitol Hill deal-making.

John Feehery, a former aide to GOP leaders and a columnist for The Hill, insisted that the basic contours of a deal were not altered by Trump’s remarks.

“I think it’s all nonsense. The president’s comments don’t mean anything,” he said. “At the end of the day, you still have the issue at hand: Are you going to take care of the Dreamers, and what is it going to take to make that deal?”

Feehery also asserted that it was wrong to place all of the blame on Trump or his party for the uncertain progress so far.

“I think the Democrats would rather have an issue than a solution,” he said. “Democrats want their Hispanic base to be angry at the president and Republicans, and they don’t really want to cut a deal.”

Democrats would vigorously deny that charge, insisting that their main priority is to protect the beneficiaries of DACA.

Democratic leaders must also grapple with a political dynamic where the president’s “shithole” remark has further inflamed their own grass roots, making any concessions by them more difficult to sell to their base.

For now, most people assume that the government may shut down, if briefly, and that a solution will have to be found sooner or later.

But, as with so many things in today’s Washington, no one sounds very confident about their predictions.

“It seems hard to believe that the government will shut down and never reopen,” Conant, the GOP strategist, said with a laugh. “So I would have to hope that cooler heads prevail and we can find some form of bipartisan agreement.

“But,” he added, “don’t ask me what that pathway looks like.”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.