In May of last year, President Donald Trump said "our country needs a shutdown." Over the weekend he got his wish. After a tumultuous couple of weeks in which the president said he would agree to a clean DACA bill "of love" and then ranted about not wanting any more immigration from "shithole" countries, the Republican House majority voted for a stopgap spending measure to keep the government funded. But the Republican Senate couldn't muster more than 51 votes and it needed 60.
As I write this, all non-essential government services are closed and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is promising a vote on DACA if Democrats agree to a stopgap measure lasting until Feb. 8. He has scheduled a vote for noon on Monday. Of course they've been kicking this can down the road for months. McConnell promised the same thing in December and never delivered the DACA vote, but maybe he really means it this time.
The sticking points are a fix for DACA recipients, enhanced border security including the Trumpian border wall, newly introduced draconian restrictions on legal immigration and funding for the Children's Health Insurance Program. The DACA issue and the CHIP program basically involve young people and sick children being held as hostages by Republicans to get their extreme immigration policies enacted.
The best description of what the negotiations have been like over the past three days came from Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer in a speech on Saturday when he said working with Trump was “like negotiating with Jell-O." He said Democrats had capitulated on the wall, and in return, Trump told him he would push for a measure to keep the government open for four or five days so they could hammer out the details. Then:
“Several hours later he called back. He said, ‘So, I hear we have a three-week deal.’ I said, 'No, Mr. President, no one is even talking about a three-week deal,'” Schumer recounted.
“Then a few hours later they called back again, ‘Well we’re going to need this, this, this in addition,’” Schumer said. “Things they knew were far, far right and off the table.”
Basically, every time the parties reach an actual agreement, the right-wingers demand more.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who foolishly believed he had seduced the president into adopting a moderate stance on the issue, was more or less with Schumer on the character of the negotiations. Graham said on Sunday, “As long as Stephen Miller is in charge of negotiating immigration, we're going nowhere. He’s been an outlier for years.”
The malevolent Miller, a White House policy adviser, may be an outlier, but he's been a pretty successful one. He and his former boss Jeff Sessions (then in the Senate), along with Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, were responsible for the failure of the last big push for comprehensive immigration reform back in 2013. Miller seems to be good at currying favor with his xenophobic bosses.
Sessions himself worked tirelessly to ensure the DREAM Act was never passed, which was why DACA was required in the first place. Back in 2010, Sessions made the case that young people who were brought to the U.S. by their parents, and were in all respects but paperwork American citizens, should be sent back to countries many could not remember. He called the DREAM Act "amnesty" for uneducated, unproductive criminal welfare recipients and said it would cost "hard-working Americans" vast sums of money. That was, of course, a lie, but Sessions managed to get the votes to scuttle the bill.
Trump made that man his attorney general. Immigration is the issue most closely associated with Trump's campaign. His closest advisers on the issue, from Steve Bannon to Miller to chief of staff John Kelly, are hardcore anti-immigration zealots. The president himself blew up the negotiations over the notion that people from "shithole" countries were coming into the United States legally. Why, if we didn't know better, you'd think they don't really want a deal at all.
The GOP revealed its true strategy over the weekend with this repugnant message:
The White House tried to distance the president from the ad, but the fact that it concludes with the words "I'm Donald Trump and I approve this message," disproves that claim. Trump also tweeted several times that the Democrats have shut down the government because they care more about "illegal immigrants" more than they care about the American people. His secretary of homeland security backed him up:
Characterizing this issue as one of conferring "benefits" on "illegal immigrants" is code for the dreaded "amnesty," which leads directly to the racist trope that they are all on welfare. The administration is now consciously demagoguing against DACA recipients by conflating them with criminals.
Yes, the polls all say that there is a bipartisan majority in favor of helping the Dreamers. Even many Republican voters aren't so heartless that they think it makes sense to deport 800,000 young people simply because their parents broke the immigration laws when they were small children. Everyone knows that it's the Democrats who are trying to help them. That would explain why party officials and the White House are purposefully conflating Dreamers with criminal gang members in that ad. They have to keep their voters confused and angry.
It's obvious from the Keystone Kops nature of the so-called negotiations that Trump isn't strategizing. His racist id and his desire to get a "win" are being pulled in opposite directions, depending on whom he listens to at any given time. His lack of understanding of the issue or how laws are actually made makes him a hindrance to deal making. But we know what Trump wants. He's said it many times during debates and on the stump during the campaign:
We either have a country, or we don’t have a country. We have at least 11 million people in this country that came in illegally. They will go out. Some will come back, the best, through a process. They have to come back legally. They have to come back through a process, and it may not be a very quick process, but I think that’s very fair, and very fine.
Yes, he's hedged on the Dreamers from time to time. But seriously, all you have to do is look at his rhetoric from the moment he announced his candidacy to understand what he really, deep down, wants to do. It was the central promise of his presidential campaign from day one.
So yes, I think it's probably true that as president he's being manipulated in the negotiations by the odious Stephen Miller and probably by Kelly and Sessions too. They know what buttons he really likes pushed. And some ambitious Republican hardliners like Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., and members of the ever-cunning House Freedom Caucus are riding the Trump zeitgeist as well.
But let's not pretend it's all Trump and his courtiers. The Republican majority in Congress has been playing Russian roulette with the Dreamers for years now. They have blocked every single solution to the problem, and it's irrational at this point to believe they are acting in good faith.