If Trump really wanted a DACA deal, there'd be a DACA deal

The easy takeaway from President Donald Trump's latest round of attacks on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals...

Posted: Apr 3, 2018 8:22 AM
Updated: Apr 3, 2018 8:22 AM

The easy takeaway from President Donald Trump's latest round of attacks on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, an Obama-era immigration policy he's seeking to end, is that he simply doesn't understand how it works.

History offers little evidence to suggest Trump is more than casually acquainted with the issue and his latest tweets, piled up in a fury over the holiday weekend, are fundamentally misleading. Simply put: DACA is not, as the President claimed, available to undocumented immigrants and asylum seekers hoping to cross the border today.

Fact checking Trump is required work, but it has its limits. More important -- and useful -- may be understanding his underlying tactics. Doing that begins with accepting one abiding truth: If the President wanted a deal on DACA with congressional Democrats, he could have easily agreed to one -- and gotten plenty in return.

Instead, he chose this.

Republicans and Democrats came close, or so it seemed on a few occasions, to a DACA deal. House and Senate minority leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer thought they had an agreement as they walked out of a White House meeting last September, about a week after Attorney General Jeff Sessions set a six-month expiration date on the program.

"Go ahead" and vote on a clean DACA bill, Trump told Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, during a televised January gathering. (House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy jumped in at that point to walk him back from that position.)

By the end of the week, negotiations were flaming out. If the President's remarks about "people from shithole countries" threw the talks for a loop, the administration demands for significant changes to legal immigration policy in exchange for a DACA pact effectively ended them. When Democrats offered border wall funding in a straight-up swap and were duly rejected, the issue -- and with it, the fate of hundreds of thousands of DACA recipients and "Dreamers" -- was all but officially punted to the next Congress.

In the aftermath, Trump has repeatedly sought to fault Democrats as failing to support a program that he, of his own volition, terminated when faced with the prospect of defending it against promised lawsuits by red state attorneys general.

"Cannot believe how BADLY DACA recipients have been treated by the Democrats...totally abandoned!," he tweeted on February 16, adding mysteriously: "Republicans are still working hard." (They were not, at least not on immigration.) And never mind that Trump had spent the previous day, in step with his Department of Homeland Security, trashing any viable compromise.

Most reasonable assessments of the White House position(s) on DACA lead to one of two conclusions. Either they're acting in bad faith -- determined to use the question as a wedge now and in the coming elections -- or Trump has no clue what he wants.

But why choose? Clearly, this is a mix-and-match operation. He wants the border wall. He wants new curbs on legal immigration. Democrats have arched against both of those ideas.

Trump began his campaign with a promise to "immediately terminate" DACA, then, after being elected, softened the rhetoric and pledged to strike a deal that would make DACA recipients "very happy." Since then, his lack of understanding has undercut potentially useful negotiations and empowered hardliners, like adviser Stephen Miller.

When this past holiday weekend rolled around, Trump, with an assist from the on-air pundits at Fox News, abandoned the pretense of the past year that he wants to make the program permanent. He claimed that the "caravan" of Central Americans pushing north through Mexico to seek asylum in the US were being lured by... DACA.

"They want in on the act!," he tweeted, conveniently ignoring the fact that DACA eligibility is restricted to those who arrived in the US before turning 16 and have lived in the country since 2007. A day later, Trump continued in this vein, tweeting again that "DACA is dead because the Democrats didn't care or act, and now everyone wants to get onto the DACA bandwagon."

One doesn't need an MBA or a degree in international relations to know it's nigh on possible to hammer out such a complex policy project without either an intimate understanding of the stakes or advisers willing, in good faith, to explain them -- and all the realistic options going forward.

Trump has none of the above, but more than what he lacks, it's what he wants -- total victory over Democrats in Congress -- that makes a deal seem increasingly improbable.

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