Barely a few hours after Democrats announced that they had reached a tentative deal with President Donald Trump on protecting the "dreamers," Trump unleashed a steaming-hot morning tweetstorm that seemed to suggest that there was no deal at all.
But make no mistake: If you read between the lines, Trump's tweets actually signal the clear outlines of a deal that would, in fact, protect hundreds of thousands of young people brought here illegally as children, on terms that might end up proving acceptable to all sides - with the crucial exception of a few very loud voices on the right, who may be able to derail any such deal, as will be argued below.
Congressional leaders Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi announced Wednesday night that they had reached a tentative agreement with Trump to protect the dreamers via legislation, in exchange for border security measures that don't include more spending on the border wall Trump wants. This caused a fury among some of Trump's nationalist media supporters, who screamed that Trump was selling out his base. That led Trump to appear to backtrack in his tweets Thursday morning:
"No deal was made last night on DACA. Massive border security would have to be agreed to in exchange for consent. Would be subject to vote. The WALL, which is already under construction in the form of new renovation of old and existing fences and walls, will continue to be built.
"Does anybody really want to throw out good, educated and accomplished young people who have jobs, some serving in the military? Really! They have been in our country for many years through no fault of their own - brought in by parents at young age. Plus BIG border security."
Yes, the very same Trump who railed against Barack Obama's protections for the dreamers as "executive amnesty" and just scrapped those protections himself did just say those things. A few points:
Trump just made a big concession and signaled the weakness of his political position. Trump basically just endorsed the main arguments for protecting the dreamers: They are largely blameless for their plight, and they are currently making positive contributions to American life. This will further infuriate the hard-line screamers: They are deeply determined to advance the impression that undocumented immigrants as a class are nothing more than a destructive, invasive, criminal presence, the dreamers very much included.
But this signals that Trump knows going through with driving the dreamers underground and subjecting them to deportation is politically and substantively untenable. He basically just told the screamers to accept this obvious truth. Yes, Trump could of course change his mind tomorrow. But that doesn't change the fact that his current position got it right: He has implicitly conceded that this would indeed be politically devastating. Trump is desperate to sign things he can call accomplishments. Chances are that he wants to sign something protecting the dreamers. The question is: On what terms?
Trump signaled there is a workable deal he'd probably accept. Trump just redefined building the wall as "new renovations to old and existing fences and walls." This hints at the possibility that a deal could be reached in which Congress appropriates money that does not meaningfully fulfill Trump's pledge to build a massive new wall, yet also allows him to tell his base he is winning on the wall in some way regardless. Republicans continue to say they must have border security money in any deal protecting the dreamers, and Democrats have signaled they can accept such an outcome, provided it doesn't end with Trump erecting the massive, symbolic Talisman of Trumpism he hopes for. There's probably some way to finesse all these things in ways Democrats and Trump and Republicans would grudgingly accept.
The right can still kill such a deal - here's how. If it looks as though such a deal has a real chance, look for the hard-liners to try to kill the deal with poison pills. People who are knowledgeable about this issue expect them to tell Trump that his base is in revolt, and that if he must protect the dreamers, he has to throw his base a few added measures, such as a requirement that employers use E-Verify screening to determine whether workers are undocumented, and money to expand Trump's deportation force. Immigration advocates can accept E-Verify, if it is packaged with legalization of most undocumented immigrants, but without that, it would render many of them unable to support themselves, leading them to self-deport (the whole point).
Democrats would not be able to accept a deal that would mean substantially more deportations and self-deportations, which is why the right would insist on such measures. To summarize: There is probably a deal in trading increased border security (without a wall) for protection for the dreamers, but not one that trades increased interior enforcement for it.
Treat the claims about Trump's base with skepticism. The hard-liners are pushing the idea that Trump's base will desert him if he agrees to protections for the dreamers. As Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, put it, this would leave the base "disillusioned beyond repair." But a recent Politico-Morning Consult poll found that 68 percent of Trump voters favor legislative protections for the dreamers. I don't claim to know what they think, but let's not treat it as uncontested fact that the base would hate such an outcome. Many news accounts are doing this. But it seems perfectly plausible that, if Trump were to bless a deal that includes both increased border security and protections for the dreamers, many of his voters would be fine with that.
The hard-liners are pushing the contrary line for strategic reasons - it makes it more likely that they can get Trump to demand the poison pills they want and kill any such deal. But there is no reason for observers and commentators to play along.