Editor’s Note: Paul Begala, a Democratic strategist and CNN political commentator, was a political consultant for Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign in 1992 and was counselor to Clinton in the White House. He was a consultant to Priorities USA Action, the pro-Hillary Clinton super PAC. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
The government shutdown is over for now. Senate Democrats have agreed to fund the government. Senate Republicans have said they would give Democrats a vote to allow Dreamers – young people brought to this country as children – to stay. What remains to be seen is how the President will handle immigration going forward – and by “President,” I mean Stephen Miller.
Trump’s 32-year old senior policy advisor is getting his 15 minutes of infamy, infuriating some Republicans nearly as much as Democrats. “As long as Stephen Miller is in charge of negotiating on immigration, we are going nowhere,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, has said.
Donald Trump ran for president in part on his celebrity status. As star of the reality TV show “The Apprentice,” he appeared on our screens each week as a strong, certain, determined CEO. Little did we know that, instead of “The Apprentice,” we have been living a very different TV show: the old Tony Danza sitcom “Who’s the Boss?”
The government shutdown revealed the stunning, almost mutinous dysfunction of the Trump White House, and the powerlessness and fecklessness of President Trump to stand up to his own staff. Let’s face it: on Donald Trump’s signature issue, Stephen Miller is the boss.
How else can you make sense of Trump’s meandering on immigration? In the famous “Chuck and Nancy” dinner in September, he seemed to promise that he’d support the Dreamers in exchange for more border security. The morning after that dinner, Trump got on his Twitter machine and gushed about the Dreamers, writing, “Does anybody really want to throw out good, educated and accomplished young people who have jobs, some serving in the military? Really! … They have been in our country for many years through no fault of their own – brought in by parents at young age. Plus BIG border security”.
In a remarkable bipartisan meeting on January 9, the President said he would sign what Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, called “a clean DACA bill,” which would allow the Dreamers to stay with no strings attached. After that, he said, we would move to “Phase Two, which would be comprehensive immigration reform. … But I think we need to do DACA first.”
One can, I suppose, fault Democrats for taking the President at his word. He is, after all, the Liberace of Lying: fluid, florid, flamboyant. But I wonder if this is something different than the standard Trump diet of supersized lies. This looks more like a President not in command of his own staff.
In that January 9 meeting, President Trump promised to take the heat and sign a bipartisan immigration reform bill. Acting on his urging, Senators Graham and Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, hammered out a compromise. At 10:15 a.m. on January 11, Durbin phoned the President and said they had a deal. He was receptive and invited the senators to brief him.
By the time Durbin and Graham came to the White House at noon, the President’s tone had changed radically. Surrounded by hardline staffers like Mr. Miller, and bolstered by anti-immigration Republicans like Senator Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas, and Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Virginia, the President launched into a racist tirade, saying he wanted more immigrants from overwhelmingly white Norway, rather than black and brown immigrants from “shithole countries” in Africa, the Caribbean and Central America.
“Every time we have a proposal, it is only yanked back by staff members,” Graham said. How can it be that the President, who ran as a deal-maker, is being overruled by a young man who seems to want to upend every deal?
The shutdown has made the President look like an empty suit – one who can sit at a conference table in a TV studio or the Cabinet room, but who ultimately relies on his producers to make the real decisions. In Hollywood, they call the people who have creative control over a production “showrunners.” In Washington, there is no doubt that it is Mr. Miller who is really running the show.