As negotiations to end a federal government shutdown dragged on Sunday, there was one pressing question no one seemed to have an answer for: What is President Donald Trump’s price for protecting Dreamers and ending the stalemate?
Trump either backed out of or eschewed two potential deals designed to avert the government shutdown before it began. One was with a bipartisan group of lawmakers and another with Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer of New York, who said he even accepted a multibillion dollar proposal that would include funding for Trump’s controversial border wall.
"Our parties are very close on all the issues we have been debating for months now, so close I believed we might have a deal twice only for the president to change his mind and walk away," Schumer said Sunday from the Senate floor. "The president must take yes for an answer."
Schumer’s criticism drew a rebuke from the White House.
“Sen. Schumer’s memory is hazy because his account of Friday’s meeting is false,” said White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders in a statement. “And the President’s position is clear: we will not negotiate on the status of unlawful immigrants while Sen. Schumer and the Democrats hold the government for millions of Americans and our troops hostage.”
Still, it’s gotten to the point where Trump’s flip-flopping negotiation style has Democrats expressing pity to the Republican Senate Majority Leader, who also admits to not understanding what the president will actually support to protect so-called Dreamers, immigrant children brought illegally to the United States. Resolving their plight would help secure Democrats’ support to end the shutdown.
Trump's shifting positions have confused both Democrats and Republicans, a conundrum exacerbated by his own lack of ideological markers and the fact that his inner circle is filled with warring factions of moderates and hardliners who themselves can’t agree on the correct immigration policy to pursue.
No one knows what Trump’s price really is to protect some 800,000 young immigrants who were brought to the United States illegally as children. Democrats, and many Republicans, thought it was accepting the border wall, but they now accuse the administration of moving the goal posts to cut a larger bill that reduces legal immigration.
Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina criticized the White House Sunday for its lack of leadership and urged Senate leaders to take over. He said the two parties could reach an agreement on a proposal that would fund the government through Feb. 8 with a commitment to continue talks on immigration and other major issues.
"The Senate needs to lead, because no one else is," Graham told reporters.
Connie Morella, a moderate Republican who represented Maryland in Congress for 15 years and served during the 1990s shutdown when Bill Clinton was president, said Trump must change the mindset of the discussion. He must set the parameters for the kind of measure he’d sign.
"It's hard to know what the president wants," she said. "That’s why Congress has to be a little stronger. They have power and the negotiating apparatus."
White House Legislative Affairs Director Marc Short insisted on Sunday the president has been upfront about his priorities, which include helping the Dreamer population, increased border security and ending chain migration and the visa lottery program.
"President Trump is being crystal clear on what he wants and he has not wavered in that," Short said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
But even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Republicans are unsure what Trump wants in a deal to protect the young immigrants. Until lawmakers know what the president will support, he added, a deal cannot be made.
"As soon as we figure out what he is for, then I would be convinced that we were not just spinning our wheels," McConnell said last week.
Schumer said on Saturday that working with Trump is like "negotiating with Jell-O."
"Not only do they not consult us, they can’t even get on the same page with their president, the president from their own party,” he said over the weekend. “The Congressional leaders tell me to negotiate with President Trump. President Trump tells me to figure it out with Congressional leaders. This political Catch-22, never seen before, has driven our government to dysfunction."
Jesse Ferguson, a Democratic strategist who worked for the Clinton campaign and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, asked how Democrats can expect to know Trump’s price when Republicans don’t know.
"At any moment in time, you’re negotiating with President Trump, with the Trump White House and now with the Trump campaign all of which could have different positions and each of which could change that position as quick as you can send a tweet,” Ferguson said.
Drew Hammill, a spokesman for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Democrats have negotiated with Trump before only to see him change his mind and side with the "most extreme person" he speaks to.
"I don't think anyone knows what the president wants," he said.
On Sunday, however, McConnell again pushed blame for the shutdown on Democrats and said he’d hold vote to break the Democratic filibuster on the short-term spending bill by 1 a.m. Monday.
"This shutdown could get a lot worse tomorrow, a lot worse," McConnell said from the Senate floor. "Today would be a good day to end it all."
Trump struck a tentative agreement last year with Pelosi and Schumer to protect Dreamers in exchange for increased security at the border, but not necessarily a wall. Democrats say Trump then immediately backed out, insisting on a larger immigration package.
GOP negotiators say Trump aides like Stephen Miller are standing in the way of an immigration deal. Miller has been among the leaders in the White House who has guided the president to push for ending chain migration and curb the diversity visa lottery program. Trump has since turned to chief of staff John Kelly to quell lawmakers’ complaints about the White House in immigration negotiations.
Trump has been relative reserved through the weekend. He has tweeted occasionally but has not made any public appearances. One provocative tweet on Sunday, though, called on Senate Republicans to change the chamber's rules to resolve the funding impasse as the government shutdown continued into its second day.
"Great to see how hard Republicans are fighting for our Military and Safety at the Border. The Dems just want illegal immigrants to pour into our nation unchecked. If stalemate continues, Republicans should go to 51% (Nuclear Option) and vote on real, long term budget, no C.R.'s!" Trump’s tweet read.
Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic consultant in New York, sees the chaos created by Trump as intentional — and politically smart.
Trump is able to step back and allow the far right to do the dirty work — to negotiate with Democrats and pull them farther than they’re comfortable with. Once both sides are bludgeoned, Trump can swoop in and claim credit for a compromise.
"This is a very smart move for this president at this time," Sheinkopf said. "Because if his calculation is correct, he will appear as the president who protected the nation from an immigration nightmare, came up with a compromise on it. Got the government back to work and told the Democrats who is boss. If it fails, so what, we’re back in the same place."