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Week In Politics: Trump Debates DACA, Border Security With Democrats


Deal, or no deal? That's been the big question in Washington this week. A couple days ago, Democratic leaders chowed down on Chinese food at the White House with the president. They talked about immigration, in particular DACA. That's the Obama-era program that shields 800,000 young people who are in the U.S. illegally from deportation.


CHUCK SCHUMER: We all agreed on a framework to pass DACA protections and additional border security measures excluding the wall.

CHANG: That's Senator Chuck Schumer. But was there a deal?


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: There was no deal, and they didn't say they had a deal.


PAUL RYAN: It was a discussion, not an agreement or a negotiation.


NANCY PELOSI: We had an agreement to move forward.


TRUMP: And the wall is going to be built. It will be funded a little bit later.

CHANG: (Laughter) OK, those were the voices of President Trump, House Speaker Paul Ryan and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi. And to make sense of what is going on here, we are joined by our Friday regulars. E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and The Brookings Institution is with us from Boston. Hello, E.J.

E J DIONNE, BYLINE: Good to be with you.

CHANG: And David Brooks of The New York Times is with me in the studio. Hi, David.


CHANG: So OK, what are these overtures the president is making to Democrats now? I mean what do you think, E.J.? Is there a strategy here, or is this impulse on Trump's part?

DIONNE: I think with Trump, you always bet on impulse rather than strategy, but impulse can sometimes lead to strategy. I talked to a Democrat today who made a point that I think is very important, which is fundamentally Trump is more comfortable personally with Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi than he is with Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan. A New York Democrat and a San Francisco Democrat have more in common with him historically than a Kentucky Republican and a Wisconsin Republican. So I think that's part of it.

I think - so the other part of it is that the Republicans have relied on a strategy of passing things almost entirely with Republican votes. That gives the right wing of the Republican caucus, particularly in the House, a kind of veto power. And Trump just looked at what happened with the repeal effort in the Affordable Care Act, and it failed. And so what he cares about more is wins and he doesn't...

CHANG: Yeah.

DIONNE: ...Really care much about the substance of the wins. And so he decided, let me try this. And I think that's a lot of what's going on here.

CHANG: And...

DIONNE: And he also loves the good publicity he's gotten out of it.

CHANG: Sure. And David, if there really is this personality rift between Trump and the top Republicans, what can they do? What can House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell do to reassert themselves?

BROOKS: Yeah. I'm sort of struck by the psychology here where Trump seems to regard the Democrats like a competing company who he can do business with...

CHANG: (Laughter).

BROOKS: ...And the Republicans as bad employees who can't do what he tells them to do. And so he has much more contempt for them. Well, this has been the Republican problem all along. They could of course hold up all his nominations. They could hold up all legislation. They could really threaten Trump and say, we actually do have some power here; we're in the majority. We won't do what you want unless you stop cutting deals with our opponents. But the idea that Republicans are suddenly going to start standing up to Donald Trump is a wrong one.

CHANG: Well, let's just proceed with the assumption that President Trump is interested in forging a more bipartisan path for now at least with respect to immigration, which was one of his biggest campaign issues. How much does Trump risk alienating his base in this moment because David, he's not saying, we don't want the wall. He's just saying, we'll do it later.

BROOKS: You know, I'm seeing a lot of burnt Make America Great hats on my Twitter feed today.


BROOKS: So I do think there is some hostility there. On the other hand, the - his base is more interested in draining the swamp. And they think Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan are part of that swamp. And if Trump wants to go freelancing, so far I think the overwhelming part of the evidence is they're willing to stick with him.

CHANG: And E.J., what about Schumer and Pelosi's base? I mean if Schumer and Pelosi are perceived as too willing to make deals with Trump, will that somehow backfire with Democrats?

DIONNE: There are limits to how far they would go. And a lot of Democrats remain uneasy with Trump. He recently - just this week went back and said, yeah, well, really the forces in Charlottesville were essentially the same, and that moral equivalence really bothers Democrats.

But I think that if Schumer and Pelosi can get a bill passed and signed that protects DREAMers without giving away too much, if they can get money to shore up Obamacare and keep it going and have Trump basically drop repeal, I think most Democrats are - they're policy oriented; they'll take that. I think they'll have to be careful in how they do it, Schumer and Pelosi. They'll have to keep their distance on other matters I think on the Republican side, by the way, this is a real test. Are Trump supporters, that Trump base we talk about...

CHANG: Yeah.

DIONNE: ...Really energized by immigration? In which case, there'll be a lot of burnt Trump hats. Or a lot of these folks, as David said, interested in broader things and ready to follow Donald Trump wherever he leads? We're going to learn that over the next few weeks.

CHANG: I mean if immigration really is an issue that genuinely energizes his base, David, what leverage does Trump's base have to pressure him to fulfill this promise about the wall sooner rather than later?

BROOKS: Yeah, well, you know, I don't think they really believe in the wall. (Laughter) Nobody believes in the wall. They would like to see more restrictions to immigration policy. And as long as he delivers that, I think he's willing to do it.

Look; I've waited all my life for us to have a president who would go with the Democrats when the merits are on that side and the Republicans when the merits are on that side. And now, at least for a week, we have that guy, and it turns out to be Donald Trump. And my fear is that it takes a lot of skill to be an independent political operator in today's Washington. And there's no evidence that Trump lacks that skill. I'm sort of afraid he's going to discredit bipartisanship.

CHANG: I want to go real quickly...

DIONNE: And I think - just to add to that real quick.

CHANG: Oh, sure.

DIONNE: I think that also, if you look at Trump's cabinet, it's a pretty right-wing cabinet. He hasn't set his government up very well to pursue a bipartisan approach to problem solving, and I think that's a practical problem, that if he's really serious - and we don't know if he is - he's going to have to figure that out.

CHANG: I want to just touch on taxes really quickly. That's the next big policy issue - rewriting the tax code. David, do you think Trump can extend this streak of at least perceived bipartisanship to tax overhaul, or is that a lot more complicated of an issue?

BROOKS: Tax overhaul is like quantum-mechanics-times-physics-times-brain-surgery.

CHANG: (Laughter).

BROOKS: It's really hard. And the idea that - it took a really masterful group of people in the 1980s to pass tax or overhaul. The idea that Donald Trump has the skill or anybody in Congress has the skill for that matter seems to me a stretch.

CHANG: And E.J., I'll give you the last word on this in the last 30 seconds.

DIONNE: If Trump insists on measures in the tax cut that really cut taxes on the wealthy, like repealing the estate tax, he's certainly not going to get cooperation from Democrats. And Republicans seem to be quite divided on where they want to go. A simple tax cut - he might be able to get it.

CHANG: E.J. Dionne and David Brooks, thanks to both of you so much.

BROOKS: Thank you.

DIONNE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.