As Republicans scrambled to make sense of a tentative immigration deal reached between President Donald Trump and top congressional Democrats, a decidedly different reaction played out within the Democratic Party.
Outside of a select few lawmakers and advocates, virtually everyone seemed not just pleased by the outcome, but outright giddy at the political and legislative possibilities to come.
The deal, which is actually an agreement to hammer out the specifics of an agreement, involves granting citizenship to undocumented minors in exchange for enhanced border security measures—sans Trump’s beloved border wall. It was crafted during a Chinese food dinner between Trump and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), at which no congressional Republicans were in attendance.
Though the arrangement came just a week after Trump, Pelosi, and Schumer hammered out a separate deal to raise the debt ceiling and finance both the government and hurricane recovery, few expected it. Immigration reform has vexed the last two presidents. But beyond that, Trump is a notorious hardliner on the issue who has, as top aides, some of the Republican Party’s most outspoken immigration hawks. It was his decision to rescind the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program that necessitated the need for a deal in the first place.
Democrats haven’t suddenly forgotten that. On Thursday morning, as they digested the news of the president’s one-eighty, many expressed cautious optimism—devils and details and what not.
“We know that Trump can turn on a dime. He may be friendly today and he may be viciously hostile tomorrow. He’s done it before. A tiger does not change its stripe,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA) in an interview with The Daily Beast. “I would be extremely cautious in trusting this president. Lying is his de rigueur throughout his 71 years on this earth. It’s a tool of the trade for him.”
But when pressed, most thought Pelosi and Schumer had scored—to borrow a Trumpian phrase—big league.
“If this deal comes together, then this is the resistance working. This is the equivalent of beating back Obamacare repeal and replace. This is a victory of the DACA kids who have mobilized in the past week,” said Brian Fallon, Hillary Clinton’s top campaign spokesman. “You can’t be so single-mindedly against Trump that you’re not willing to declare victory when you defeat Trump.”
If there is a complication that the party fears may arise from the Schumer-Pelosi-Trump nexus, it is squarely political. The risk being run is that, by crafting deals with the president, Democrats soften his image; or, perhaps, boost his attempts to portray himself as an apolitical problem-solver. Back in 2009 and 2010, congressional Republicans adopted a just-say-no approach to Barack Obama’s presidency precisely because they wanted to brand him as ineffectual and partisan.
But even those who helped craft that—successful—Republican policy say that Schumer and Pelosi aren’t running high risks in their DACA collaboration with Trump since the it appears to be written largely in their terms,
“It is one thing to work on something that goes against your ideological moorings but it is another when you are just getting what the president hands to you,” said Josh Holmes, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-KY) former chief of staff. “This would be like if Obama turned to us and said, ‘I’ll build the wall’ in exchange for nothing.”
On the Hill, Democratic aides say there has been notably little pushback on leadership for working with Trump, save some members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus who have expressed concerns that any “deal” that entails legal status for DREAMers effectively treats them as a bargaining chip. At the campaign committees, there was even some glee.
“If this were to keep happening,” a top Democratic campaign official said, “that would assume that he was getting things done that Democrats and swing voters like… In which case, what are House Republicans even doing here?”
House Republicans seemed to be asking that question themselves on Thursday, with lawmakers both bewildered by the deal as announced and insisting that it couldn’t be formalized without their input. Among Trump’s most fervent supporters, despondency seemed evident as well, leaving the impression that a president seeking to earn accolades for bipartisan outreach risked depressing the very people who got him elected.
“The flip side of the coin is I see [Trump] becoming more radioactive in the Republican Party,” said Jim Manley, a former top spokesman to Senator Harry Reid (D-NV), “which will only strengthen our case by just driving the party further into inter-kniffing warfare.”
Beyond the politics, Democrats seemed genuinely favorable to the substance of the DACA deal. Trump had given them a six month deadline for finding a solution to the problem that he had created by rescinding the program. And within a matter of weeks, he had agreed to an outcome that was largely within their framework. As Dan Pfeiffer, President Obama’s former top aide put it: “These are good deals and there is almost no cost.”
Not every deal is expected to go like this, of course. And for the fearful out there, like Connolly, the hope is that in the glow of victory, his party didn’t forget with whom they are negotiating.
This is a president who has “no moral core or conviction,” the congressman said. “It’s not the opening of a new era of good feelings.”
“Look at the reaction to the fiscal deal that he just accepted. What was his reaction the next day when he called Schumer,” he added rhetorically. “It wasn’t ‘we averted a shutdown,’ it was ‘we’re getting good press out of this.’ That tells you a lot about what motivates this guy and what he reacts to. And it’s pretty vapid or vacuous.”