Shutdown truce just delays Trump's big dilemma

By escaping the government shutdown drama without losing face, President Donald Trump can claim a short-term victory....

Posted: Jan 23, 2018 7:47 AM
Updated: Jan 23, 2018 7:47 AM

By escaping the government shutdown drama without losing face, President Donald Trump can claim a short-term victory.

But the truce only delayed the most fateful dilemma he is yet to face in his presidency, on the issue that powered his political rise: immigration.

Many Republicans believe that Trump, in his heart, wants to spare DACA recipients from deportation

But to make it happen, the President will need to take a stand that could put him at odds with sectors of his political base

Sooner or later, Trump must take a hard position on whether to allow some 700,000 people brought illegally to the US as children to stay, a move that could hurt him with some of his most fervent supporters.

At the height of the shutdown drama, the President made no attempt to sell a bipartisan consensus to protect recipients of the expiring Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program to conservative Republicans -- even, Democrats say, when he was offered a reciprocal promise of funding for his promised border wall.

Trump hosts senators to discuss immigration as shutdown winds down

So much for the President who two weeks ago promised to "take the heat" on passing a bipartisan immigration deal.

The shutdown ended Monday, after Democrats won an assurance from the Senate majority leader, Kentucky Republican Mitch McConnell, of a debate and a vote on immigration in return for ending a filibuster of a short-term funding deal until February 8.

The breakthrough revealed a growing bipartisan constituency for an immigration deal in the Senate, but any measure, even if it funds Trump's border wall, may be dead on arrival in the House unless it draws full-throated presidential support.

"Ultimately, the President is going to need to get on board in order for the House to vote on it," Republican Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona said Monday. "The House, much more so than the Senate, relies on the backing of the President."

Trump spent his entire first year in office piling up political capital with his most fervent supporters. The question now is whether he will be willing to spend it on an issue that hard-line activists may demagogue as giving amnesty to illegals.

Many Republicans, including Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, believe that Trump, in his heart, wants to spare DACA recipients from deportation.

But to make it happen, the President will need to take a stand that could put him at odds with sectors of his political base, who flocked to his side precisely because of his tough tone on immigration in 2016.

After all, Trump said during his campaign that he would "immediately terminate" what he called President Barack Obama's illegal executive amnesties.

In office, he has softened his tone, reflecting prevailing public opinion that DACA beneficiaries should be able to stay, saying, "I love these kids," and calling for a "bill of love" to save them.

But at crunch time, the President has shown no indication that he is willing to take a political hit to help DACA recipients, who on Monday were facing another extension of their agonizing wait to learn their fates.

Trump last year declared Obama's DACA program unconstitutional and canceled it, playing the hero with hard-line activists.

But apparently unwilling to pay the political price for deporting DACA recipients, he threw the problem into Congress' lap, raising questions about how willing he is to lead on the issue.

"DACA is a very, very difficult subject for me," Trump said, encapsulating his dilemma in a news conference nearly a year ago. "I will tell you. To me, it's one of the most difficult subjects I have."

But every President sooner or later faces a moment when he must act in a way that could hurt him with his most loyal supporters. In fact, dealing with no-win questions that everyone else has failed to solve is part of the job description.

So far, Trump has not had to make that leap. Battles last year on tax reform and Obamacare did not involve going against sectors of the GOP base.

If there is one consistent thread running through his presidency, it is Trump's desire to avoid upsetting his base. Indeed, with an approval rating below 40% such solicitousness is an existential issue for the President.

And though polls have consistently shown that even a majority of Trump voters want DACA recipients to stay, the President appears to be squeamish about throwing himself into the fray.

"When you sit with the President ... you can see that he really wants to do it," Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, said Saturday. "But then a few hours later, because of the right-wing pressure, he backs off."

That's bad news for Republicans who want Trump to play a more influential role than the one he played by mostly staying out of sight over the weekend -- largely by design, several sources told CNN.

"At some point, before we pass a bill, if we pass a bill, it would be helpful to know exactly what the President is thinking," Republican Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana told CNN's Brooke Baldwin on Monday. "Because you don't want to go pass a bill or waste your time on the bill if he is going to veto it."

Trump may not just have to make a break with sections of his base if he is to navigate the prolonged debate over the fate of those covered by DACA. He may have to repudiate his advisers as well.

One of the revelations of the shutdown drama is the influence apparently wielded over Trump by members of his own team, including chief of staff John Kelly and 32-year-old political adviser Stephen Miller.

Schumer and Graham complained that the President appeared under the sway of those two immigration hard-liners.

The White House insisted Monday that there was only one decision maker in the White House, and there is ominous precedent for Trump aides whose profile threatens to eclipse his. Look no further than Steve Bannon.

But Alex Conant, a former strategist for GOP Sen. Marco Rubio's presidential campaign, said Miller was tremendously influential in the White House, and warned that his presence was a bad sign for those hoping for a DACA fix.

"Stephen Miller just doesn't believe that immigration is good for the country," Conant told CNN.

"When you are trying to negotiate with him, there is just no common ground. I think that is why you see Senator Graham and a lot of other senators so frustrated that he is in the room for these negotiations," Conant said.

"Because quite frankly, as long as he is in the room, it is highly unlikely there is going to be any sort of agreement."

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