White House officials made the unusual decision Tuesday to allow cameras to film a nearly hourlong immigration meeting with a bipartisan group of lawmakers. They probably wish they hadn’t.
For a moment, Democrats thought they had struck an unexpected deal with President Donald Trump. Trump had previously insisted that any deal protecting “dreamers” - undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children - should also include border security and/or a border wall. But he now says that he would support a “clean” bill protecting dreamers, and then take up comprehensive immigration reform later.
“What about a clean DACA bill now and a commitment to do comprehensive next?” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. Trump responded: “Yeah, I would like to do that. I think a lot of people would like to see that.”
The problem? Trump didn’t know what “clean DACA bill” meant. Republicans quickly interjected and made clear that Trump believes a “clean” bill would include border security. Except that’s not at all what a clean bill is; that’s a compromise bill. A clean bill only has one component to it and doesn’t include multiple elements, which could muddy it.
By the end, Trump sought to clarify things. “I think a clean DACA bill, to me, is a DACA bill, but we take care of the 800,000 people,” he said. “But I think, to me, a clean bill is a bill of DACA - we take care of them, and we also take care of security.”
If anything, the whole mess showed pretty vividly just how utterly disengaged Trump is in the finer details of policy discussions. Which is exactly the perception that he has recently fought against.
Asked by The New York Times late last month about this perception, Trump bristled. “I know the details of taxes better than anybody - better than the greatest CPA,” he said. “I know the details of health care better than most, better than most.”
The problem is that every public indication gives us the opposite impression. Trump almost continually moves the goal posts on what he wants, shifts the terms of the debate and misstates what’s actually contained in the legislation that is before Congress.
Even by the end of the meeting, Trump seemed to indicate that the border wall isn’t necessarily a must-have for him - becoming just the latest iteration in a dizzying series of back-and-forths on what he wants in a DACA deal.
“My position will be what the people in this room come up with,” Trump said. He added later: “I’m not going to say, ‘Oh, gee, I want this,’ or ‘I want that.’ I will be signing it.”
OK, so you’re no longer demanding the border wall or even border security, then?
If you are a Democrat hearing those words, it’s pretty clear Trump isn’t wedded to his position on, well, anything. The border wall seems more like an opening bid. If Trump has shown us anything, it’s that he just wants to sign bills and make sure the base doesn’t hate him for it. So as long as he can plausibly say he fought the good fight for the border wall - even if he didn’t - it seems he’s ready to just get it over with and claim a legislative win.
Which is generally OK. Presidents needn’t dirty their hands with all of the sausage-making that happens on Pennsylvania Avenue. Congress produces the bills, and the president decides whether to sign them.
But Trump has repeatedly assured us that he knows this stuff better than almost anyone and that he’s the world’s pre-eminent negotiator. What we saw Tuesday was neither of those things.
Aaron Blake is a Washington Post columnist.