Tuesday, January 9, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He held a meeting on immigration and articulated a few policy positions--none of which were his.

On the surface, the bipartisan meeting Trump held with congressional leadership was almost startlingly normal by recent standards. With TV cameras rolling for almost an hour, Trump held a freewheeling discussion with Democrats and Republicans on DACA and immigration reform. Not all of the optics were as good: Trump rambled at the start and returned repeatedly to vivid imagery about "arms and legs" being lost in the NYC truck attack.

Responding to California Sen. Diane Feinstein's request for a "clean DACA bill"--that is to say, a standalone bill re-establishing protections for undocumented children brought across the US border--Trump responded, "Yeah, I would like to do it." Feinstein immediately asked Trump to confirm his agreement, and he did so--then said that "phase two," after DACA, would be "comprehensive immigration reform." 

None of this would be remarkable, except that enshrining DACA in law and passing comprehensive immigration reform are Democratic priorities, and almost exactly the opposite of any policy that Trump had articulated up to this point. (DACA only needs a legislative solution because Trump rescinded President Obama's executive order establishing it.) Visibly alarmed, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) and Sen. David Perdue (R-GA) interrupted and tried--with some success--to get Trump to instantly reverse his reversal. 

Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with presidents changing their minds, or reaching across the aisle--but as conservative Republicans noted afterwards, it was not entirely clear that Trump knew what his position was supposed to be. 

Trump being uncertain about what his position on major policy issues is nothing new. Even during the most intense part of his failed effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act, he often seemed confused about what he was trying to do, at times endorsing a European-style single payer system. 

Perhaps the only moment of clarity in the whole meeting came after it was over, when the White House press office produced an official transcript of the event that left out the portion of the discussion where Trump unambiguously agreed with Feinstein's proposal for a clean DACA bill, and Trump--presumably having been reminded of the "correct" position--tweeted out his demand that any DACA bill include American taxpayer funding for his proposed border wall. In that tweet, Trump insisted that he had been "very clear" about all this in the meeting.

Why is this a problem?

  • It's bad if a president doesn't know what he is supposed to believe on major policy issues.
  • If the intent of this meeting really was to show that Trump is mentally alert and capable of acting presidential, it probably didn't work.
  • It's bad if presidents have to stage public demonstrations of their mental alertness and capability.