Exactly one year ago Saturday Donald J. Trump was inaugurated as the 45th President of the United States. It was a day when our new president was more concerned about the size of his inaugural crowd than uniting the country. It was also a day when former President George W. Bush gained a lot of respect from yours truly when he described Trump’s speech as “some weird s—t.”
President Trump had planned to fly off to Mar-a-Lago on Friday to celebrate his first year as president at a gala fundraiser with his rich friends. They had paid $100,000 a couple for the pleasure of attending, or $250,000 to be seated at the main dinner table. So much for Trump’s populist rhetoric and being the president of the working man. But pity the poor stiffs who hoped to be showcased by actually sitting with “the man.” Oh well, they won’t miss the extra $150,000 they shelled out. As Trump told them over the Christmas holidays after signing the tax bill, “You all just got a lot richer.”
It is entirely fitting that Trump’s first anniversary as president was celebrated with a partial government shutdown; Trump has been working to shut it down with staffing and budget cuts since he took office. But this impasse was over providing a solution for over 700,000 so-called “Dreamers,” the adults who were brought to the United states illegally as children. President Obama had protected them in 2012 with an executive order called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). It has been a hot issue ever since.
After Mitt Romney’s stunning loss to Obama in 2012 — due in part to the Latino vote — a number of Senate Republicans suddenly became very interested in immigration reform. That led a bipartisan group of eight senators, including Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), to draft an immigration reform bill. It passed by a vote of 68 to 32 in the Senate.
Fourteen Republicans joined all Democrats in the vote, but all five Senate Republican leaders rejected the bill. Then-Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) claimed it didn’t provide sufficient border-security measures to stem future illegal immigration. That was a ruse, just part of his continuing effort to thwart any type of an Obama victory.
Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio), who was under pressure from far-right members of his caucus, never brought the Senate bill to the House floor for a vote. The immigration issue was left to fester.
Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), along with several other senators from both parties, had been engaged in a bipartisan effort to solve the DACA problem for over six months when Trump decided to terminate DACA last September. He gave Congress until March 5 of this year to provide a legislative solution.
With the deadline to fund the government approaching on Friday, both Democrats and Republicans knew that resolving DACA would complicate negotiations. But Trump began giving encouraging signals to Democrats on Jan. 9. He told a bipartisan group of congressmen that he favored a DACA deal and even immigration reform.
But when Trump set up a meeting on Jan. 11 with Durbin and Graham to discuss their proposal, several immigration hardline conservatives were there. Trump’s earlier support turned into a profanity filled bruhaha during which Trump allegedly referred to Haiti and African countries as “s—tholes.” Hopes for a compromise on DACA disintegrated.
Then Trump called Schumer to have lunch with him alone on Jan. 19, just 12 hours before a shutdown would occur. Schumer said he agreed to put full funding of the border wall on the table, a concession his caucus hates. And he left the meeting thinking a deal was close at hand. His hopes were dashed when Trump’s Chief of Staff John Kelly called a few hours later.
I think this background is important in understanding why Schumer and Democrats decided to make failure to resolve DACA a deal breaker during Friday’s negotiations. They probably sensed that if they didn’t get some agreement then, the DACA grace period would expire in a few weeks, paving the way for Attorney General Jeff Sessions to begin deportations.
Of course, Democrats are not blameless in this shutdown. Perhaps they misjudged the situation. But Trump opened the door to a DACA deal twice and then he slammed it in their faces. Who can blame them for being angry and forcing the issue?
But Democrats were not the only ones riled by Trump’s vacillating. McConnell showed his frustration during a news conference on Jan. 18 when he said “I’m looking for something that President Trump supports. And he’s not yet indicated what measure he’s willing to sign.”
Lindsey Graham was also perturbed after Trump talked compromise at the Jan. 9 meeting and then abruptly backed away when he and Durbin went to the White House on Jan. 11. Referring to the earlier meeting Graham said, “Now I don’t know where that guy [Trump] went. I want him back.”
On Saturday Trump’s campaign put out a video on illegal immigrants that accuses Democrats of being “complicit” in murder. Does Trump think that will pave the way to a compromise?
This confrontation over funding the government and protecting Dreamers is Trump’s first real test as the President, both as a leader and a negotiator. So far, he seems to be failing it miserably.