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What Trump chooses not to understand about immigration negotiations

Donald Trump doesn't want a deal on immigration; he wants a ransom. Whether he understands this or not, they're not the same thing.
Image: U.S. President Donald Trump departs from the G7 summit in the Charlevoix city of La Malbaie
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks as he departs from the G7 summit in the Charlevoix city of La Malbaie, Quebec, Canada, June 9, 2018. REUTERS/Yves Herman

As the uproar over his family-separation policy continues to erupt, Donald Trump took a few minutes this morning to address immigration at an unrelated White House event. True to form, the president lied quite a bit, but in this case, Trump's false claims were notable for other reasons.

He began by insisting that "all of the problems that we're having" on immigration are "the Democrats' fault." He added, "They're obstructing. They're really obstructionists. And they are obstructing."

There's obviously no reason to take any of this seriously, but I was intrigued by why he's so convinced the buck stops with the minority party with no power in Washington, D.C. Trump made his case:

"If the Democrats would sit down instead of obstructing, we could have something done very quickly -- good for the children, good for country, good for the world. It could take place quickly."We could have an immigration bill. We could have -- child separation -- we're stuck with these horrible laws. They're horrible laws. What's happening is so sad -- is so sad. And it can be taken care of quickly, beautifully, and we'll have safety."This could really be something very special.... We can do this very quickly if the Democrats come to the table. Everybody wants to do it. We want to do it more than they do. If they come to the table, instead of playing politics, we can do it very, very quickly."

At face value, this may sound vaguely reasonable. Why shouldn't both parties come to the table and try to work out a deal? If Democrats and Republicans both support immigration reform measures -- "everybody wants to do it" -- wouldn't it make sense for policymakers to work on an agreement?

The trouble, whether Trump understands this or not, is that he doesn't really want a deal; he wants a ransom. They're not the same thing.

The president made a deliberate choice to adopt a "zero tolerance" policy that separates children from their families at the border. Trump apparently wants people to believe this is "sad," but it's misery he's chosen to impose on thousands of families -- not because "horrible laws" require it, but because this president sees value in his own White House's policy.

Indeed, in Trump's vision, "child separation" can end once Democrats meet his demands. That may be considered a legitimate negotiating posture among those involved in organized crime, but "give me what I want and I'll release my hostages" is not generally the sort of leadership one expects from an American president. By any sensible measure, it's not really negotiating at all.

Making matters much worse, Trump seems wholly unaware of details he really ought to understand. He said this morning, for example, that Democrats should "sit down" and help get "something done." What the president neglected to mention is that Democratic leaders have already sat down, worked on possible solutions, and endorsed six different bipartisan immigration packages since the Republican president took office.

Trump rejected each of them.

More recently, House Democrats agreed to work a compromise immigration package with House Republican moderates, and the effort appeared to be on track -- right up until GOP leaders killed the bipartisan measure. (House Speaker Paul Ryan was reportedly "desperate" to see the bipartisan bill fail.)

Last week, House GOP members got to work on a separate compromise immigration proposal, involving conservative Republicans and not-quite-as-conservative Republicans. Congressional Democrats were "cut out of negotiations."

So when Trump says Democrats should "come to the table" and negotiate, the president appears to be describing an alternate reality in which Dems haven't already spent considerable time at "the table," only to be told Trump will only accept everything he wants.

It's as if the president literally doesn't understand what a "deal" is.