President Donald Trump’s latest offer of a deal to resolve the government shutdown was an inept playing of a weak hand. It was never in the cards for Democrats to agree to Trump’s $5.7 billion wall demand in exchange for just three years of protection for the Dreamers plus temporary reprieves for some other immigrants.
Trump obviously knew this when he made the offer. He is still betting that the public will accept his argument that a physical wall is needed to protect Americans from an invasion of refugees and an inflow of illegal drugs. But public opinion isn’t buying it.
There is no such invasion. Flows of undocumented migrants have dramatically slowed in recent years, and most illegal drugs are smuggled in on commercial flights, not via illegal border crossers.
The main driver of the opioid epidemic is not illegal imports across the Mexican border, but a commercial U.S.-based drug company, Purdue Pharma, which hyped demand for its product OxyContin. A wall would stop migrants and drugs only in some parallel universe imagined by Fox News.
The temporary protection offered to Dreamers was doubly insulting because it was Trump who unilaterally tried to end President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program in the first place. Trump and the GOP ought to permanently safeguard the status of those undocumented migrants brought here as young kids, not as a bargaining chip with Democrats but because it’s the right thing to do. Permanent status for Dreamers has broad public backing and had wide bipartisan support in Congress before Trump started mucking around and demonizing immigrants.
Public opinion is getting away from Trump, both on the case for the wall and on citizen weariness with the government shutdown. Yes, some portions of Trump’s base buy his story, but that’s not enough to satisfy a growing number of Republican senators who would be happy to take the short-term budget deal that’s been on the table for weeks: Open the government and then keep negotiating about border security.
Trump’s Sunday tweets were a pathetic confession of weakness, not strength. The best he could do to insult Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi was to complain about San Francisco’s allegedly filthy streets. The last time I was there, they glittered. San Francisco’s problem is gentrification, not grime. It’s one more sign of how out of touch this president is.
Trump has already demonstrated weakness in other ways, in raising and then discarding the idea of using presidential emergency powers to order construction of his wall. That shows that there must be some grown-ups to whom Trump pays some attention, perhaps his much abused chief of staff and jack-of-all-jobs Mick Mulvaney. Or maybe Javanka.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has dutifully promised a Senate vote on Trump’s proposal next week, but be careful. Several Republican senators are fed up with Trump’s shutdown antics, and the measure could fail. Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma referred to Trump’s proposal as a “straw man” in an interview with ABC’s Martha Raddatz.
Democrats have been united while Republicans have begun defecting. Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, one of the more centrist and bipartisan Democrats, declared on “Meet the Press” that the Trump offer was only a “starting point” and that Democrats would not reward “hostage taking,” meaning the shutdown.
There is one small silver lining in Trump’s proposal. It shows that a new phase has begun, in which the president is willing to start bargaining. This was just his opening gambit.
I continue to believe that the final deal will include a DACA agreement in exchange for some increased funding for border security that will include some stretch of physical barrier that Trump can call a wall. He has already back-pedaled on his demand for a literal concrete wall. In the endgame, he can term a mix of electronic surveillance and some actual barriers a “wall,” and declare victory.
Whether this happens before or after the shutdown is resolved will depend on whether Trump’s weak offer is enough to halt the erosion of Republican support in the Senate.
Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect and a professor at Brandeis University’s Heller School. His latest book is Can Democracy Survive Global Capitalism?