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The Memo: Trump sticks to his guns on immigration agenda

The Memo: Trump sticks to his guns on immigration agenda
© Toya Sarno Jordan

Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpKey takeaways from the Arizona Senate debate Major Hollywood talent firm considering rejecting Saudi investment money: report Mattis says he thought 'nothing at all' about Trump saying he may leave administration MORE is going full-steam ahead with his immigration agenda, catering to his base with tough talk and trying to force a difficult choice on Democrats who have promised to protect immigrant communities.

Trump’s State of the Union speech was notable for its emphatic rhetoric on illegal immigration and for the significant time devoted to the topic. 

The president offered little by way of an olive branch to Democrats, instead repeating an existing White House proposal and — in the single most memorable line of the night — insisting “Americans are dreamers too.”

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The effort to press ahead with the hard-line approach that Trump enunciated during his 2016 campaign is backed by many people in his orbit.

“If you don’t keep a motivated base, you can’t win reelection,” said one former Trump campaign aide, who asked for anonymity to discuss the immigration issue candidly. The former staffer cited a salutary example in former President George H.W. Bush, who broke a famous campaign pledge not to raise taxes and subsequently lost his bid for a second term to Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonCybersecurity for national defense: How many 'wake-up calls' does it take? Who's in control alters our opinion of how things are Obama adviser jabs Hillary Clinton over Monica Lewinsky comments MORE.

Democrats expressed outrage at Trump’s assertions, which also blamed lax immigration laws for gang violence and some terrorist attacks. 

Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisOn The Money: Deficit hits six-year high of 9 billion | Yellen says Trump attacks threaten Fed | Affordable housing set for spotlight in 2020 race Election Countdown: Cruz, O'Rourke fight at pivotal point | Ryan hitting the trail for vulnerable Republicans | Poll shows Biden leading Dem 2020 field | Arizona Senate debate tonight Affordable housing set for spotlight of next presidential campaign MORE (D-Calif.), a possible 2020 presidential candidate, accused the president of “fear-mongering” in an interview with Chris Matthews of MSNBC. 

Some progressive groups used even more heated language, with the left-wing People’s Action releasing a statement asserting that Trump was building his proposal to replace the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program on “a bedrock of white supremacy.”

But Trump’s base has long been responsive to his hawkish positions on illegal immigration. And it is far from clear that the public at large is implacably opposed to the framework he is putting forward. 

A CBS News–YouGov survey conducted in the immediate aftermath of the State of the Union address indicated that 72 percent of the people who had watched the speech favored Trump’s plans on immigration, while 28 percent were opposed. 

The White House highlighted the survey, while Democrats argue that such results are of limited value, since the overall TV audience for a Trump State of the Union would be expected to lean Republican. 

Other polls have consistently shown pluralities in favor of protecting “Dreamers,” as DACA beneficiaries are often called, and against building the southern border wall Trump promised during his campaign.

Trump’s plan on DACA offers a path to citizenship to around 1.8 million people who entered the United States illegally as children. 

But the liberal-friendly nature of that offer is balanced by a raft of much more conservative demands: $25 billion for the border wall, the elimination of the diversity visa lottery program and significant restrictions on family-based immigration.

House Democratic Leader Nancy PelosiNancy Patricia D'Alesandro PelosiOn The Money: Deficit hits six-year high of 9 billion | Yellen says Trump attacks threaten Fed | Affordable housing set for spotlight in 2020 race Deficit hits six-year high of 9 billion: Treasury GOP has not done a good job of selling economic achievements, says ex-Trump adviser MORE (Calif.) wrote on Twitter on Wednesday that Trump’s speech was “completely devoid of the serious policy ideas that lead to real bipartisan efforts.” 

Meanwhile, some Republicans expressed serious doubt that progress could be made with the existing White House framework.

Not only did the plan seem to contain too much that was unpalatable to Democrats, but the pathway to citizenship could also prove problematic with conservative Republicans, according to veteran GOP strategist Mac Stipanovich.

Referring to a presidential adviser known for his hard-line views on immigration, Stipanovich said, “Basically the trade-off [from Trump to Democrats] is ‘I will give you probably more than you expected from me on Dreamers if you will give me the rest of the Stephen Miller agenda.’ ”

Stipanovich, a frequent Trump critic, added, “I’m not sure that the president could pass that in either House. I’m not sure that he could get the necessary votes in the Senate for the non-Dreamer portion, and I’m not sure he could get the votes in the House for the Dreamer portion of it.”

Still, some conservatives expressed enthusiasm for the Trump proposal. 

“Democrats aren’t going to get a better immigration offer than that. They best take it,” said David Bozell, president of ForAmerica, a grass-roots conservative organization, in a statement.

Even some Republican consultants who are often skeptical of Trump acknowledged that his visceral connection with his own base could prove powerful.

“Any other politician who took a hard line on immigration but who would suddenly offer citizenship to DACA recipients wouldn’t be a successful politician for very long. But Trump is immune to all that,” said Rick Tyler, a GOP strategist who was communications director for the 2016 presidential campaign of Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzBeto O'Rourke will not share million he raised with other Dem Senate candidates Election Countdown: Cruz, O'Rourke fight at pivotal point | Ryan hitting the trail for vulnerable Republicans | Poll shows Biden leading Dem 2020 field | Arizona Senate debate tonight Donald Trump Jr. blasts Beto O’Rourke: ‘Irish guy pretending to be Hispanic’ MORE (R-Texas).

The countdown is on for a fix for DACA. The program officially ends on March 5. The fate of immigration reform will also be tied into a government-funding deadline even earlier, on Feb. 8.

But the White House and other people on Team Trump have their gaze set on longer-term goals: the midterm elections in November and Trump’s own 2020 reelection effort. 

They are convinced sticking to their guns on immigration will pay off.

“People on the left and moderate Republicans are always pointing to those polls showing a majority … opposing the wall. But what those polls don’t tell you is that the vast majority of voters, they don’t vote on that issue,” said the former Trump campaign aide.

“The people who vote on the immigration issue — and would conceivably vote for a Republican — would vote in support of the wall.”

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