President Donald Trump’s ambitious plans to fix the immigration system, forge Middle East peace and coax Iran to the table might work – but only if his negotiating partners agree to utter capitulation.
The President’s new immigration blueprint, unveiled with the pageantry of a White House Rose Garden announcement Thursday, has an infinitesimal chance of becoming law. It’s about as likely to fix the mess as another forthcoming project by his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, is of securing a “deal of the century” between Israel and the Palestinians. And though the President wants Iran to call him, the conditions his team has established for an agreement make dialogue a nonstarter.
In each case, Trump’s approach does a good job of enshrining his own priorities and those of his favored stakeholders in negotiations – for instance, conservative GOP candidates or the Israeli government.
But it offers almost nothing to the other side in each negotiation – for instance, the Palestinians, Democrats or any Iranian leaders who might agree to a highly improbable diplomatic opening.
And the plans adopt an unrealistic assessment of the starting point for any talks – in some cases just ignoring impediments that do not fit the White House vision of a solution to these problems and conflicts – some of the most intractable issues that previous administrations have failed to solve.
So the prospects for success on any of these fronts are hardly promising, if Trump is looking for political victories to showcase to voters in the 2020 election. The President is a shrewd political operator. It’s always possible that he’s deluding himself – but not likely. So the most plausible interpretation of his administration’s strategy is that it’s trying to maximize the political capital he can wring out of each initiative – a sure sign that an election is just 18 months away and approaching fast.
The President seemed to admit as much during his speech unveiling the immigration plan.
“If for some reason – possibly political – we can’t get the Democrats to approve this merit-based high-security plan, then we will get it approved immediately after the election, when we take back the House, keep the Senate and, of course, hold the presidency,” Trump said.
The political upsides to the likely failure of Trump’s dead-on-arrival plans are obvious and could be considerable.
When Democrats whose votes the President needs knock back his immigration program – perhaps because it doesn’t shield Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program recipients – Trump can boast to supporters that he stood up for strong borders and merit-based visas, core aspirations of his political base and conservative immigration advocates.
One potential Democratic opponent to Trump in November 2020, Sen. Kamala Harris of California, played into the idea that the plan was rooted in an alternative reality that does not exist.
“I will tell you that I found the announcement today to be shortsighted. I found it to be an indication of an intention to not be relevant for the largest of number of people,” Harris said in Las Vegas on Thursday.
Other Trump critics said his plans to overhaul asylum laws would simply prolong his war on immigrants.
When Palestinians almost certainly reject the yet-to-be-unveiled Middle East plan because there is no path to statehood and they don’t consider the administration an honest broker, the President can bask in the praise of evangelical voters who like his hardline approach.
Trump’s Middle East envoy, Jason Greenblatt, confirmed Thursday that the plan lacked the framework of a two-state solution – long a prerequisite for Palestinian support.
“We saw no benefit in using that phrase. We understand what the Palestinians are looking for … we understand what the Israelis have said about the issue,” said Greenblatt at the annual meeting of the World Jewish Congress in Ottawa.
While half of his administration appears to be pushing for a military confrontation with Iran, Trump is trying to cool things, meeting with Switzerland’s President on Thursday in what was seen as a possible attempt to set up a channel to Tehran.
If his offer for negotiations with Iran somehow produces a stunning photo op at talks with a leader from Tehran he can chalk it up as a masterful political coup. If he fails, he can recall a worthy effort to defuse tensions his administration has spent the last two years exacerbating. But the chances of success appear remote, not least because the administration is demanding concessions from Iran that no leader of the Islamic Republic could accept.
Why presidents publish dead-on-arrival plans
Trump is far from the first President to make striking-looking plans that are sure to fail. Such an approach is as much a part of life in divided Washington as oversight fights, and it can help presidents crystallize political arguments and present a coherent case to voters.
Democrats are doing much the same thing – passing bills to combat global warming and on health care that they know the Republican-led Senate won’t adopt and Trump won’t sign – but that they can use to blast GOP obstruction and show midterm election voters they lived up to promises.
Republicans have long accused Democrats of not being serious on immigration overhaul efforts, saying they want to dangle the carrot of change in front of Hispanic voters to lock in their support in elections.
And it would hardly be fair to Trump to criticize him for failing to end the hostility between the US and Iran, which has peaked and ebbed ever since the Iranian revolution in 1979 – even if he did pull out of a nuclear deal agreed to by the Obama administration that US intelligence agencies assess was working.
And Presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush all tried to get Middle East peace over the line – and failed.
But Trump’s approach is a sure sign that at this point in his presidency – given the gridlock in Washington and grim prospects abroad – administration public relations efforts should be viewed with particular caution and seen for what they are.
The next two years may not be a complete write-off.
If the President can wring serious concessions out of China – on respect for intellectual property and on ending cybertheft – after escalating his tariff war, he could deservedly celebrate an achievement that eluded his predecessors.
Hell could freeze over and the President and Democrats could find a way to agree to get a $2 trillion infrastructure plan into law -- despite an almost total breakdown of relations between the White House and Capitol Hill over the Mueller report.
And the US sanctions campaign and the apparently squandered incentive of two presidential summits with Kim Jong Un could finally pay off in serious talks with North Korea that lead to progress on defusing its nuclear threat.
But it looks more likely that if Trump is to rack up big legacy achievements, they will come in the first years of a second term, should he win reelection.
CNN’s Paula Newton in Ottawa contributed to this story.