Trump’s deal-making with top Democrats enrages the right – and alarms the left
Spurning his own party, the president last week reached agreements with arch critics. Is this a fresh start, or a smart bid to discredit opponents?
Donald Trump infuriated supporters and bewildered politicians across the spectrum last week with a series of initiatives hinting that a less partisan presidency could be emerging from the chaos of the White House.
The president’s performance, which saw him striking ideological postures that delighted Democrats, surprised even those grown used to the erratic antics of his presidency. The confusing signals left seasoned politicians stumbling for explanations as details emerged of an extraordinary encounter between the president and some of his most bitter Democratic party critics.
A gleeful account by Chuck Schumer, the Democrats’ leader in the Senate, of his meeting with Trump – which led to an agreement over how to deal with undocumented young migrants – captured the drama. “He likes us,” Schumer said. “He likes me, anyway.” His conversation with his Republican counterpart, Mitch McConnell, was caught by a live microphone on the Senate floor. Schumer continued: “Here’s what I told him: I said, ‘Mr President, you’re much better off if you can sometimes step right and sometimes step left. If you have to step just in one direction, you’re boxed.’ He gets that.”
The snatch of conversation came after a White House dinner to which McConnell was pointedly not invited. Instead Schumer, along with Nancy Pelosi, the Democrat leader in the House, enjoyed red and white wine, while the teetotal president sipped Coke. They emerged claiming to have struck a deal to protect young undocumented migrants brought to the US as children.
As Trump turned to Democrats for a second time in two weeks – and as some claimed to detect a newly cautious Trump toning down rhetoric over such vexed issues as North Korea and Iran – Republicans on Capitol Hill were left wondering whether they had lost sway with the president, despite having control of both chambers and a mounting legislative agenda. There was also a furious backlash from some in the Trump base. Angry supporters posted videos of themselves burning a signature Trump ‘Make America Great Again’ hat.
But Trump’s unorthodox manoeuvre also raised questions over how far Democrats should go to court him without alienating their own supporters. What remained unclear was Trump’s strategy – if he has one.
His motives for “step right, step left” appear various. He has fallen out with McConnell and the House speaker, Paul Ryan, especially after their failure to pass healthcare legislation. He instinctively gravitates towards Schumer, a fellow New Yorker, and towards pragmatic deal-making rather than ideology.
He is also basking in positive media coverage after months of being hammered. Last week, after working with Schumer and Pelosi on a three-month extension for the national debt ceiling, he called Schumer, who recounted to the New York Times: “He said, ‘This was so great!’ Here’s what he said: ‘Do you watch Fox News?’ I said, ‘Not really.’ ‘They’re praising you!’ Meaning me. But he said, ‘And your stations’ – I guess meaning MSNBC and CNN – ‘are praising me! This is great!’”
Trump’s addiction to TV news channels seems intact, but he is spending less time in the rightwing fever swamps of the internet, according to the website Axios. John Kelly, Trump’s chief of staff, has reportedly restricted the number of articles that staff print out from sites such as Breitbart and bring to his attention. “The dramatically different information Trump receives daily under Kelly is an underlooked factor in Trump’s decision to double down on his partnership with the Democratic leaders,” Axios said.
This, along with the replacement of press secretary Sean Spicer by the less gaffe-prone Sarah Sanders, and the ousting of troublemakers Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka, have given some hope that the administration is finally professionalising and steering towards a middle course.
But even as pundits pondered the dawn of a new era and talked of a “pivot” or “bipartisan” president, Trump’s reliably twitchy thumbs suggested there was no meaningful shift in behaviour. In a characteristic early-morning tweetstorm, he suggested on Friday that the perpetrators behind the Parsons Green terrorist attack were already “in the sights” of Scotland Yard – prompting a rebuke from Theresa May.
Trump also used the terror attack to push for his travel ban against some Muslim-majority countries, arguing it should be “far larger, tougher and more specific”, while adding: “But stupidly, that would not be politically correct!”
His tone was equally inconsistent last Thursday while touring parts of Florida left devastated by Hurricane Irma. In one moment, he was Trump the dealmaker, relishing opportunities to speak to reporters about his negotiations with Democrats. But at another turn, when asked about a meeting he held with Tim Scott, the Senate’s only black Republican, Trump again declared that “both sides” were to blame for the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia.
While Schumer and Pelosi spent the immediate moments after their dinner with Trump crafting a statement about a potential deal on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (Daca), the president was more preoccupied with tweeting about “Crooked Hillary ”. He also made comments and tweets that sowed confusion over what had been agreed.
The shifting sands leave mainstream Republicans, hardline Trump supporters and Democrats scrambling to find their footing. McConnell and Ryan have tried to be circumspect, despite what might be seen as public humiliation. The House speaker said pointedly: “I think the president understands that he has to work with the congressional majorities to get any kind of legislative solution.”
Congressman Pete Sessions, a Texas Republican and chair of the rules committee, said: “Typically a president of our party would work with our party on a proposal that we would be supportive of, and so we’re learning now how he wants to operate.” Other conservatives were more outspoken. Straight after Wednesday’s dinner, Iowa congressman Steve King, a Republican, tweeted: “Trump base is blown up, destroyed, irreparable and disillusioned beyond repair. No promise is credible.”
Ann Coulter, a conservative commentator, tweeted: “At this point, who DOESN’T want Trump impeached?” And Breitbart, run by Trump’s former chief strategist Bannon, ran the headline “Amnesty Don”. But the base is no monolith. Fox News and the conservative broadcaster, Rush Limbaugh, praised Trump for his negotiating skills.
The crowds who pour into his raucous rallies are unlikely to lose faith over horse-trading on Capitol Hill, especially with their hostility towards Republican elites. For Democrats, the Trump initiative is fraught with risk. The president is seen by many as a demagogue, misogynist and white nationalist to be resisted at all costs. He is notoriously opportunistic, improvisational and mercurial.
Some on the left warn that anyone who gets too close to him will be burned. Norman Solomon, a Bernie Sanders delegate from California to last year’s Democratic national convention, said: “Trump is holding tight to so many odious policies that it’s tempting to rejoice when he decides to loosen his grip on one or another, once in a while. But the problem is not only that Trump is an expert at praising people and then shafting them.
“What’s also a huge danger in the current bipartisan foreplay is what could be called ‘ the optics’ of Democratic leadership making nice with a symbolic and actual representative of massive greed and oligarchy. If Democrats want to oppose Trump as the heartless corporate monster that he is, then making nice with him in photo-ops and boasting that he likes them is not good groundwork for winning working-class votes in the next few years.”
Democratic leaders are aware of the limitations posed by working with Trump. One Senate Democratic aide, who did not wish to be named, said the goal was to address issues requiring immediate attention – the fate of Daca recipients and legislation to stabilise the health insurance markets. With a new deadline of mid- December to fund the government and raise the debt limit, the aide said, Democrats have a limited window.
Trump’s erratic behaviour, the aide cautioned, “makes the price of our cooperation very, very, very high”, adding: “I think that you have to weigh what you’re able to achieve.”
‘If Democrats want to oppose Trump as the heartless corporate monster… nice photoops are not good’ Norman Solomon, Democrat
Donald Trump leaving the White House with his wife Melania on Friday.
The president with, from left, Mitch McConnell, Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi on Wednesday. His policy deals with Schumer and Pelosi shook Washington.