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Trump stumbles in important ways during immigration negotiations

During high-level negotiations on immigration policy, Donald Trump briefly stumbled into rejecting his own administration's goals. Then it got worse.
Image: President Trump meets GOP senators at the White House
epa06417072 US President Donald J. Trump speaks during a meeting in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Washington, DC, USA, 04 January 2018. President...

When the White House hosts policy negotiations with lawmakers, the interesting stuff usually happens far from public view. It's what made yesterday's discussion on immigration so extraordinary.

Donald Trump met in the White House cabinet room with lawmakers from both parties and both chambers, and in a dramatic change of pace, they all talked while cameras rolled for an hour. Why did we get this valuable peek behind the curtain? It's hard to say for sure; perhaps the president hoped to discredit concerns about his mental stability.

But if that was the goal, it was a flawed plan. In one especially important moment, we saw Trump accidentally endorse a Senate Democrat's request for a clean DACA bill, extending protections to Dreamers, only to have a House Republican quickly interject, reminding the president of what his position is supposed to be.

In other words, Trump brought nearly two dozen members together for negotiations on immigration policy, and he briefly stumbled into rejecting his own administration's goals. After years of (often vague) talk about the issue, Trump still isn't up to speed on some of the most basic details.

In fact, the president was unexpectedly candid on this front, effectively admitting that he not only doesn't especially care what lawmakers come up with on immigration policy, but also that he doesn't intend to play much of a role in crafting a final product.

"I will say, when this group comes back, hopefully with an agreement, this group and others from the Senate, from the House, comes back with an agreement, I'm signing it. I mean, I will be signing it. I'm not going to say, 'Oh, gee, I want this or I want that.' I'll be signing it, because I have a lot of confidence in the people in this room that they're going to come up with something really good."

Later, Trump added, "I think my positions are going to be what the people in this room come up with. I am very much reliant on the people in this room." He went on to say if lawmakers negotiate a policy "with things that I'm not in love with," he intends to embrace it anyway.

At a certain level, I suppose there's utility in presidential flexibility, but Trump made it sound as if he's outsourcing all policymaking duties to Capitol Hill, in large part because he's indifferent toward the substantive details.

New York's Jon Chait had a good piece along these lines, noting that the president "fundamentally fails to understand sources of substantive disagreement between the parties."

Trump may occasionally appear to be trans-ideological, but in fact he is sub-ideological. His moments of flexibility occur on those occasions when he is in the room with a moderate or a liberal, and lacks the contextual understanding to identify what about their proposals he doesn't agree with.Every time something like this happens, Trump's interlocutors assume they have won him over to a new, moderate stance. This pattern has happened on immigration, health care, the Paris climate agreement -- any time he listens to liberals pitching a bipartisan deal, it sounds good to him. The problem is that he quickly returns back to orthodox conservatism as soon as he is ensconced with his right-wing advisers. You can't "pivot" if you don't understand that you changed your stance in the first place.

And this, ultimately, is why the president is ill-suited as a dealmaker. "Deals are my art form," the Republican has bragged. "Other people paint beautifully or write poetry. I like making deals, preferably big deals. That's how I get my kicks."

But as president, Trump has proven hopelessly inept at striking deals on any issue. The Washington Post  reported in the fall, "President Trump campaigned as one of the world's greatest dealmakers, but after nine months of struggling to broker agreements, lawmakers in both parties increasingly consider him an untrustworthy, chronically inconsistent and easily distracted negotiator."

As we discussed at the time, Trump seems wholly incapable of remaining focused on his own priorities; he frequently lies about his intentions, even to allies; and he frequently changes his mind without reason or explanation, often based on the last person to have his ear. Indeed, that's largely what we saw play out yesterday in the Cabinet Room.

In order for Trump to play a constructive role in making deals with elected officials, he has to have some basic familiarity with the substance of the issues at hand -- and in nearly every instance, this president seems to have no idea what he's talking about.