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Did the White House just blow up immigration negotiations?

It depends who’s in charge.

Saul Loeb/Betty

The extensive list of immigration “priorities” the Trump administration sent to Congress on Sunday night — which amounts to a comprehensive immigration-hardliner agenda — is either a sword through the heart of any attempt to pass a bill to legalize the 690,000 young unauthorized immigrants currently protected by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or a laughably empty act of saber-rattling bravado.

The question is who gets to decide.

There is no single “Trump administration” — the president encourages factionalism and rivalry, and is famously likely to agree with whomever he talked to last.

Just last month, Trump was eager to recreate the glowing press he received for making deals with Democrats; but Stephen Miller and Attorney General Jeff Sessions have also pushed some of the toughest immigration policies in decades — all thought to please Trump’s base. DACA has always been on the fault line between the two sides.

The release of the principles is clearly a victory for the latter vision, and those who support it. But the principles are also standing in the way of any concrete bipartisanship on DACA, laying out impossible demands that Democrats would never agree to — and that are pretty far to the right of what many Republicans want.

These aren’t just different factions; they’re different models of how decisions get made in the White House. Trump and company at some point are going to have to choose: Do they want the “dealmaker” presidency that so often tempts the president, or the “law-and-order” presidency that gets him such love from the base?

It’s deals with “Chuck and Nancy” versus feeding the Trump base

For the most part, President Donald Trump has been more than happy to enact the hardline immigration policies he promised on the campaign trail. The exception, for the first several months of his presidency, was ending the DACA program — something he’d promised to do as a candidate, but appeared to waffle on after he was elected and realized how politically sympathetic many of the immigrants it helped were.

Even when the Trump administration announced in September that it was winding down the program, it sent mixed messages about why. Attorney General Sessions announced the move as a necessary stand. DACA recipients were taking American jobs, had links to terrorism, and other claims that had little relation to the truth. Trump himself, meanwhile, emphasized that he was giving Congress six months to help DACA recipients stay in the US. He even promised them they would be safe for the next six months, even as the Department of Homeland Security made many immigrants vulnerable to losing their protections before March.

The president’s defensiveness was understandable — he was being blamed for making hundreds of thousands of US-raised immigrants vulnerable to deportation, and the accusations (even if they were being leveled by the “fake news”) appeared to get under his skin. But simply tweeting defensively didn’t deflect the attention, or the blame. Ultimately, he had to change the narrative by calling in Chuck and Nancy — and letting the dealmaker presidency take over.

While the White House quickly denied Democrats’ initial claims that Trump had agreed to sign a bill that allowed DACA recipients to become US citizens without any enforcement measures attached, Schumer and Pelosi continued to believe that Trump had assured them he wasn’t going to wring concessions from Democrats. Congressional Republicans, for their part, felt totally undercut by their own president — first he’d sided with Democratic leadership over Republicans on a debt ceiling extension, and now he was threatening to cave on his own signature issue.

And then there were the people within the White House who’d built up the “law-and-order presidency” — and who weren’t keen to be undermined by a would-be dealmaker president.

The effort to draft “priorities” that Congress should follow has been rumored to be led by key adviser Stephen Miller, a leading architect of Trump’s hardline immigration agenda during the campaign and in the White House. And the principles as they have been unveiled to the press are a pretty uncompromising vision of a restrictionist immigration policy — demanding everything from drastic cuts to legal immigration to mandatory use of the E-Verify system to check workers’ legal status (which could kick 8 million unauthorized immigrants out of work).

Miller is the rare adviser who Trump appears to trust more now than he did when he arrived in office. For all Trump’s unpredictability, he’s never actually bucked Miller and Sessions on immigration — Trump called DACA recipients “terrific” just days before ending the program, but wasn’t ultimately willing to stand up for them in the face of Sessions’s argument about the program’s unconstitutionality.

If the dealmakers are still in charge, the principles are just gentle suggestions

The White House itself is being strategically vague about whether President Trump will veto any bill that doesn’t include all of the “priorities” sent to Congress — or which priorities are really essential. “We’re not going to negotiate with ourselves,” said one senior official on a press call Sunday night.

The question is whether they are going to negotiate with Democrats — which is to say, whether the dealmaker presidency is still in effect, or whether it’s been replaced by the hardliner presidency.

From the standpoint of the dealmaker presidency, putting out immigration priorities is a way to wipe the slate clean after the “Chuck and Nancy” debacle. It restores leverage to congressional Republicans by making it clear that the president isn’t pushing for a DREAM Act that grants citizenship without concessions to DACA recipients, and by giving them an extremely broad menu of concessions to ask Democrats for in exchange. By putting out its own principles, the Trump administration has prevented congressional Republicans from blaming the administration if they fail to reach a deal by March 5.

And in theory, nothing is stopping President Trump from disregarding his own stated priorities and striking a last-minute deal with Democrats that follows the rough outlines of the alleged September agreement (legalizing DACA recipients in exchange for some “border security” measures).

Others in the administration are already working to make it harder for anyone, including the president himself, to pick a couple of the less-contentious “priorities,” attach them to a legalization proposal and announce they have a deal.

On Sunday night, administration officials used “border security” to label policies that went beyond simply apprehending immigrants crossing the border without papers, to encompass everything from eliminating sanctuary cities to making it harder to apply for asylum. And they stressed that the policies in the document would only really work if all of them were enacted together — the same argument made by supporters of comprehensive immigration reform under the Bush and Obama presidencies, now marshaled in support of a comprehensive immigration crackdown.

If the White House is taking a hard line, it’s taken all of the urgency out of a DACA deal

Administration officials could be trying to play hardliner and dealmaker simultaneously. By forcing Congress to meet the March 6 deadline to save DACA recipients — and asking them not to take up any immigration bills until after tax reform is done — it may think it’s putting Democrats in a corner and forcing them to agree to any proposal offered — no matter how meager — in order to save DREAMers from deportation.

But if that’s their strategy, they undermined it entirely on Sunday.

By widening the scope of what could be considered as part of a DACA deal from “border security” to literally the whole of American immigration policy, they’ve created plenty more opportunities for members of their own party to disagree with the White House or demand concessions. After all, moving any legislation through regular order requires 60 votes in the Senate — they need to work with Democrats to get something done.

Those negotiations take time. There’s a reason that Republicans, under the Obama administration, insisted that border security should be handled separately from other parts of immigration reform — it’s the part of immigration policy Republicans are the most unified on.

Furthermore, the administration has removed any incentive for Democrats to deal, by saying it’s “not interested in granting citizenship” to DACA recipients even if all its priorities are met. Even by opening up the possibility that Democrats could give up entirely on the rest of their immigration agenda to help DACA recipients, and still get only half a loaf to help DACA recipients, the White House has basically told Democrats there’s no reason to cede any ground.

On Sunday night, all talk of forcing Congress to do something to help DACA recipients had fallen by the wayside; it didn’t appear that the administration would be terribly upset if March 5 came and went without any congressional action at all.

Sunsetting DACA without congressional intervention would certainly be in keeping with the hardliner presidency. But it would be a pretty big blow to the dealmaker presidency. And if Trump the dealmaker resurfaces at any point between now and March 5, he could shrug off the immigration principles as easily as he’s shrugged off any other principles that got in the way of a little glowing press coverage.

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