Congress shut the federal government down for three days, all over an unwieldy immigration debate that Donald Trump mismanaged into complete dysfunction. Trump lashed out against U.S. immigrant communities and, for once, the Democrats fought back. After a long weekend of negotiations to save the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA) as a condition of passing yet another continuing resolution, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell struck a deal with Senate Democrats to fund the federal government through February 8 in exchange for the promise of a floor vote on immigration reform. And while the Democrats rally around a popular policy, Donald Trump has made himself a marginal figure in the immigration debate and, apparently, lost the plot.
McConnell has less than three weeks to make good on his promise to bring a DACA fix to a vote in the Senate. Many observers have reverted to figuring the congressional Democrats as fools and cowards for believing McConnell. Still, they live to fight until DACA protections begin to lapse on March 6, and the anti-immigration GOP hardliners have proved that their fringe objections still hold considerable sway over the debate. This whole showdown may repeat again, but with Democrats emboldened to push further, without compromise, toward compassionate reforms. Still, no one has truly “won” the immigration reform debate yet.
In the past couple of weeks, Trump has shirked some responsibility for the DACA showdown by retreating to his golf course in West Palm Beach and leaving the negotiations to various competing factions in the Senate. But Trump is running out of political cover. On January 30, the president will deliver his first State of the Union address to Congress. Ideally, Trump will clarify his administration’s DACA stance—along with its overall immigration agenda—in his prime-time remarks, at which point the White House, the Republican leadership, and congressional Democrats may have the dramatic immigration confrontation that Trump has envisioned since the beginning of his political career.
As for now, instead of tapping into some imagined groundswell of anti-immigrant sentiment to advance his own agenda (including his proposed U.S.-Mexico border wall) in Congress, Trump and the GOP now find themselves relitigating an Obama administration policy that is broadly popular with voters. And while right-wing Republicans such as Tom Cotton in the Senate and Bob Goodlatte in the House draft plans to curb all immigration, even legal immigration, Trump has rendered himself embarrassingly marginal to a debate that addresses his signature political concern.
Trump launched his presidential campaign on a crude promise to curtail Mexican immigration, and he provoked the recent congressional standoff four months ago when he directed the Department of Homeland Security to rescind DACA. And yet, despite all his campaign tough talk about “bad hombres” and “the wall,” compounded with his private rants about immigration from “shithole countries,” Trump has expressed interest in working with Democratic leaders Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi, along with Senator Dianne Feinstein, on a DACA alternative despite GOP objections. Trump’s occasional openness to DACA doesn’t square with his general sentiments about immigration, which are largely defined by vulgar hostility. The president’s ideological incoherence, his erratic negotiating strategy, and his general disinterest in governing created the space for a shutdown showdown over DACA in the first place; those qualities all make it tough to predict what Congress will end up pursuing in the next three weeks.
Increasingly, it seems that Trump isn’t the star negotiator of the immigration debate, and that it doesn’t really matter what he thinks about any given proposal. The Trump administration’s two most vociferous anti-immigration proxies are the White House chief of staff John Kelly and the senior White House adviser Stephen Miller. They have reportedly curtailed the Democratic leadership’s direct negotiations with the notoriously impressionable Trump, and, along with legislators like Cotton, have sabotaged the GOP’s pro-DACA faction. Meanwhile, Trump has excused himself from any expectation that he might resolve the disagreements within his party. On the eve of the shutdown, Trump was reportedly eager to flee Washington for a party in Mar-a-Lago to celebrate the first anniversary of his inauguration. Of course, the shutdown—and the broader dysfunction it implies—left the president with very little worth celebrating.
In the hours before the shutdown, Senate Republicans blamed Senate Minority Leader Schumer and the Democrats for shuttering the federal government. It’s a wishful bit of spin from a party that is very clearly, overwhelmingly in charge. For the Democrats, the question was not only whether they could save DACA, but whether their willingness to suffer a government shutdown in order to sustain their political objections would enliven their base and humiliate the Trump administration. For now, it has—Trump has lost track of his signature issue so badly that it’s given his critics more reason to wonder whether Trump is a confused figurehead who ultimately reports to his own chief of staff instead of the other way around.
Of course, there are no real winners here. There are mostly just leaders who have once again embarrassed democratic governance, and hundreds of thousands of distressed constituents who now find themselves failed and frightened by the process. But Trump picked a fight and then fled, losing in absentia. If that’s Trump’s leadership on immigration, then Kelly is right—the wall is pure fantasy.