It is President Trump’s habit, when he makes policy announcements bound to upset Democrats or other political foes, to bathe in the backlash, crow about the hurt feelings and mock any mawkish or emotional reactions.
That’s how we got “Cryin’ Chuck Schumer,” a nickname born of the Democratic minority leader’s weepy response to the first travel ban and revived, now, for the ongoing fight over the fate of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and the people known as Dreamers.
Seeing Trump come alive at the smell of a fight with Democrats is hardly new. But his hardening tone, when addressing this particular issue, indicates a fundamental shift in his approach. DACA recipients are now – as they were always going to be, given Washington’s current power dynamics – a bargaining chip.
The rest is just noise.
Unlike with so many other points of political contention, Trump has long applied a softer touch when discussing DACA recipients. Perhaps it’s because they’re typically younger, or came into the country as minors with their undocumented parents, or simply because they are viewed widely as the good immigrants (a cultural distinction both problematic and pervasive), productive and law-abiding. That the program itself is widely popular – 84% of Americans back it, with broad support among Republicans (72%), independents (82%) and Democrats (96%) – adds to the stew.
In theory, popular opinion should do a lot to guide these kinds of decisions. But the horse rarely leads the cart on such big ticket policy debates. If it did, US gun laws would look much different. The interests of strident minorities (e.g. “Trump’s base”), hard-line aides and powerful legislators from deep red states have an outsize effect, even on a President determined not to be viewed as traditionally partisan.
Taken together, his very recent, acute rhetorical shift makes a lot more sense.
Over the course of a little less than two weeks, Trump has gone from publicly asking Democrats and Republicans, gathered at the White House, to join together and forge a “bill of love” (January 9, 2018), to privately raging over the entry of immigrants from “shithole countries” (January 11, 2018), to declaring in a tweet, during a helter-skelter mini-shutdown, that Democrats want “unchecked illegal immigration” (January 20, 2018) – all the while keeping mum on what he, the president, actually wanted. Those details, according to White House press secretary Sarah Sanders, are now slated to arrive on Monday (January 29, 2018).
Not that this should be, or is, terribly surprising to the key players in the ongoing negotiations. During the 2016 campaign, Trump pledged to dismantle the Obama-era protections. He subsequently softened his styling and, while taking questions back in February 2017, barely a month into office, spoke at some length about his affection for DACA “kids.”
“The DACA situation is a very, very – it’s a very difficult thing for me,” he said. “Because, you know, I love these kids. I love kids. I have kids and grandkids.”
But even as his promise to “show great heart” in addressing the matter grabbed the headlines, Trump also parceled out a handful of red meat, adding: “In some of the cases (the recipients) are having DACA and they’re gang members and they’re drug dealers too.”
That rhetorical edge disappeared again, though, when Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced in September that the administration would rescind the program. Trump, suddenly shy of the spotlight, offered only optimistic words, via tweet, and a call for Congress to write some version of DACA into law. In fact, many read his tweet from a little after 8:30 p.m. that day as a suggestion he might extend the executive action on his own if no legislative fix could be agreed on.
Which brings us back to now. On Tuesday night, Trump opened up Twitter again to share his view of the current state of play:
“Cryin’ Chuck Schumer fully understands, especially after his humiliating defeat, that if there is no Wall, there is no DACA,” he said. “We must have safety and security, together with a strong Military, for our great people!”
Whatever guidelines the White House releases next week, this tweet pretty much tells the meaningful part of the story. Most importantly, it should finally dispel any notion that Trump is for sentimental reasons going to sideline Republican hawks, like Sen. Tom Cotton and Rep. Bob Goodlatte, who want to extract as much as possible from Democrats on indirectly related immigration issues. Schumer’s ongoing attempt to retrench, post-shutdown, amounts to a public concession to that reality.
“We’re starting over,” Schumer told CNN’s Tal Kopan on Wednesday. “I took (border wall funding) off – they took their thing off the table, I took our thing, we’re starting over.”
That, of course, is posturing. The fundamental reset already happened and the Democrats, with whatever little leverage they can muster, are now rushing to remake their own strategy.
One thing they can be sure of, though, is that this question, which predated Trump and many of their own careers, won’t be settled over Chinese food.