Trump's Amazing Week Panics Left and Right

Donald Trump, Nancy Pelosi, Mitch McConnell, Chuck Schumer
President Donald Trump meets with congressional leaders. Trump, who has said the government could use a "good" shutdown, is blaming Democrats for the possibility it could happen. Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

"We have many, many things that are on the plate" said President Donald Trump, not referring to his supper but to the crowded legislative agenda facing Congress. "Hopefully we can solve them in a rational way…. We'll probably know pretty much at the end of this meeting," It was September 6, and the president was in the Oval Office with congressional leaders—the Big Four, as they're sometimes called: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York, House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California. Also there was Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, and sitting beside Trump in a Queen Anne chair was Vice President Mike Pence.

By the time the confab was over, Washington was stunned: The president had struck a deal with the two Democratic leaders on a wide-reaching, three-month stopgap measure to keep the government funded for three months and raise the debt limit so the government could keep borrowing, and to provide aid to victims of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. For the first time in his presidency, Trump had not governed as a knee-jerk conservative or a partisan Republican, but as a bridge-builder—and conservatives labeled him a sell-out.

Related: Fox News is now attacking Republicans while praising Trump and Democrats

One key issue: Ryan and McConnell wanted an 18-month plan for hiking the debt limit, thereby pushing the issue past the next election and avoiding a fracas among Republicans, many of whom have gotten in the habit of opposing a debt ceiling hike unless it's accompanied by huge spending cuts. Each time, financial markets have been roiled by the possibility of the U.S. defaulting on its debts for the first time in 241 years. Pelosi and Schumer wanted only a three-month debt deal. Sensing the president was leaning with the Democrats, McConnell and Ryan offered six months. But Trump cut them off—and Mnuchin and Pence, too—and signed on to the Democrats' short-term plan. Later in the day, the president heaped praise on the opposition leaders—he called them by name, "Chuck and Nancy," and with affection—while he was talking to reporters..

The surprise deal avoids what was looking to be a September Shitstorm, with the very real possibility of a government shutdown and a default on the national debt. By cutting this deal, Trump now has three months during which he doesn't have to worry about a government shutdown in the midst of a hurricane or a standoff with Kim Jong Un, the nuke-happy North Korean leader. The big issue now is what happens with Washington's other messes, most notably immigration, and the question of whether we're seeing a new Trump. Is this the birth of a moderate or just the impulsive behavior of a Toddler-in-Chief.

In some ways, Trump working with Democrats is a return to the norm, when presidents cut deals across party lines all the time and occasionally relied on them when their own parties balked. Bill Clinton lost a majority of Democrats on two of the signature issues of his eight years in office—welfare reform and the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement—so he had to work especially closely with Republicans on those issues.

Trump's switch was notable because it wasn't necessary. He could have sided with the Republicans, helping them avoid embarrassing votes over the debt ceiling between now and 2018. On Friday, the day after Trump cut the deal with Pelosi and Schumer, 150 conservative House members signed a letter opposing the accord because it didn't include spending cuts. No one can be quite sure if Trump was just being practical to get something done, or if he was sticking it to Ryan and, especially, McConnell, with whom he's been feuding over the Senate's failure to pass key legislation like the Obamacare repeal.

All of this has resurrected conservatives' fears that the president is a closet moderate. They note that he at one time regularly wrote checks to Democratic candidates and would pal around with the Clintons. They worry that he'll revert and abandon their issues. That's unlikely: It's still in Trump's interest to have a strong Republican Party, and the core of his base is still partisan GOP voters. He can't afford to alienate them—at least not too much. But what Senator Ben Sasse, a Nebraska Republican, denounced as the "Trump-Pelosi-Schumer deal" does suggest a president more willing to work with Democrats, sometimes in unanticipated ways.

That was apparent on immigration this week. On September 5, Attorney General Jeff Sessions stood before the microphones at the Justice Department to announce that the administration would, in six months' time, end a program started by President Barack Obama to protect immigrants who came to the U.S. as minors. The 2012 Deferred Action for Child Arrivals (DACA) program affects some 800,000 undocumented self-styled "Dreamers"—a hat tip to the American Dream—who are granted temporary relief because they passed a series of background checks, including staying in school and avoiding a criminal record. Trump's hand was forced by conservative attorney generals, who threatened to go to court on September 5 to have the program overturned unless the president ended it. Agreeing with the conservatives, Sessions, who has been the administration's clearest voice for restricting legal and illegal immigration, declared the program an overreach on Obama's part and called on Congress to pass legislation dealing with the issue.

In the funhouse world of Trump's Washington, the move managed to panic both left and right. Dreamers took to the streets in mass protests, naturally upset that they might face deportation to countries they have not seen since childhood and where they know no one and have no future. Democratic and even many Republican politicians weighed in on their side, calling for a humane approach. Corporations like Amazon and Microsoft went to court to support continuing the DACA program. And a bevy of liberal attorneys general filed opposition briefs asking judges to keep DACA and offering the stunning argument that the president was motivated by racial animus, and so it would be unconstitutional for him to scrap the 5-year-old program for that reason. (That same argument, posed by the attorneys general, carried the day against Trump's Muslim ban in some courts, so it might work here, too.)

That was the predictable result—but this is the Trump era, and predictable rarely happens. Within hours of the Sessions announcement, Trump, sensing the backlash against the DACA repeal, started backing off. On Thursday, he told reporters he was very confident "Chuck and Nancy" could help forge a deal to do by statute what Obama had done by executive order. And he even tweeted that he would revisit DACA himself if Congress couldn't act—which was something of a head scratcher, since his own attorney general had said DACA wasn't in the president's power to enact, let alone revisit. Underscoring the newfound closeness between Trump and the Democrats, Pelosi boasted that a tweet Trump sent on September 7, telling Dreamers not to worry, had been sent at her request. "As Abraham Lincoln said, 'Public sentiment is everything,' and right now public sentiment is with the Dreamers," Pelosi said at a press conference. Indeed, polls showed that Americans overwhelmingly don't want these longtime residents—many of whom serve in the military and one who died performing a rescue in Texas after Hurricane Harvey—sent packing.

On the anti-immigration, right there was a freakout. A week that began with DACA repeal seemed to be heading toward a president gone soft on immigration. Trump's encouraging words about fixing DACA and, in particular, Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders saying the president favors "comprehensive immigration reform," added to their panic. That phrase was the mainstay of Republican and Democratic efforts to rewrite of the nation's immigration laws in a way that would not only allow the 800,000 Dreamers to stay, but to create a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants who are in the U.S. The idea that their man Trump and his aides were using the same language as softies like Marco Rubio and John McCain enraged Ann Coulter, the patron saint of the anti-immigration crowd. Suddenly, conservatives were realizing that after a year in which they could not repeal and replace Obamacare, defund Planned Parenthood, cut taxes or do much of anything beside confirm a conservative Supreme Court justice, the issue they hated most, immigration reform, was front and center and the president was playing footsie with Nancy Pelosi. It didn't seem impossible that Trump could sign the Dreamers bill that eluded Barack Obama. David Frum, an immigration restrictionist and himself a Canadian, warned of "Trump's pending immigration sell out." Just a few weeks ago, Trump seemed to ratchet up his immigration talk, telling a rally in Phoenix that "if we have to close down the government, we're building that wall." But it's September, and Trump has already backed off a shutdown for at least three months, so no one knows if the threat will reappear come December—when we might be dealing with a whole new Trump.