President Donald Trump is hedging on a border wall, he’s working to protect young, undocumented immigrants from deportation and he’s wheeling and dealing with Democratic leadership, threatening to betray core campaign promises in the process.
But according to the GOP base, this is all the fault of the Republican-controlled Congress.
“I don’t fault the president,” said Steve Scheffler, the Iowa Republican national committeeman. “The people I’m most disgusted with are these Republicans who pontificate, get themselves into self-righteous mode and want to do everything in their power to make sure the president doesn’t succeed. We’ve got to get something done.”
After meeting with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi on Wednesday, Trump and the Democratic leaders said they had discussed a path to shielding from deportation immigrants who were brought here illegally as children, part of a plan that would also include border security. Trump, who ran on pledges to build a wall on the southern border, called the structure “vital,” but also said Thursday that it will “come later.”
The idea of pushing the wall off while dealing with young undocumented immigrants—whom he suggested last summer shouldn’t be exempt from deportation—outraged some influential conservative voices. Significantly, Breitbart—now home, again, to former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon—blared the headline ‘Amnesty Don’ Wednesday evening and kept up tough headlines into Thursday afternoon.
But grassroots leaders around the country remain far more comfortable criticizing Congress than criticizing Trump. And early Thursday, as they got up to speed with the rapidly changing dynamics surrounding Trump and immigration, that was their instinct.
“The Republicans have no one to blame but themselves if they’re now not happy with what he’s doing,” said Tom Carroll, a conservative activist in Pennsylvania. Moderates “keep yelling at conservatives, ‘you people need to get on board, realize you need to compromise, need to govern.’ What he’s saying is, I’m president of all the people.”
Even if he disagrees with how Trump approaches the immigration issue, Carroll said he has no plans to abandon the president.
“If we’re moving the ball down the field in the right direction, we’re not going to get a touchdown, win the game in the first eight, nine months of the administration,” he said. “There are going to be ties. We’ll think, ‘Why did they do that?’ That doesn’t mean, because I don’t agree with it, I’m going to abandon conservative principles or the thrust of the agenda passed. I’m not going to jump off the bandwagon, so to speak, and say I’m done with Trump. It’s not going to happen.”
Conservative activists have spent years railing against “amnesty,” using the term as a blanket barb against Republicans perceived as open to more centrist immigration policy. Very few other Republicans would get away from the base unscathed by pushing what Trump has embraced in the last 24 hours, said Doug Heye, who served as a top aide to former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a Republican often bashed by the grassroots over immigration.
“If President Rubio, President [Jeb] Bush cuts this deal, the apparatuses that have sought to divide the party are crying wholesale surrender,” Heye said. “This is not and has never been about policy, this is about tribal politics and this is about personalities.”
Mimicking what he described as diehard Trump supporters, he continued: “’What’s he going to do? Stop illegal immigration! Build the wall! Kick everybody out! He doesn’t want to do that? That’s OK because he’s amazing. Being in love means never having to say you’re sorry.’”
Certainly, there are some very prominent voices that have consistently backed hardline immigration policy, and now appear critical of Trump’s immigration machinations. As news of a possible deal came out, commentator Laura Ingraham snarked on Twitter, “Exactly what@realDonaldTrump campaigned on. Not.”
Down the road, said one source close to the White House, having prominent conservative personalities on talk radio and even on Twitter turning on Trump over this could be a significant problem, given how extensively Trump campaigned on promises of a restrictionist approach to immigration.
“Politically speaking, this was the core issue of the campaign,” this source said. “If you go weak on this core issue—I’m not saying the coalition just dissipates tomorrow, I’m saying this is the crack down the middle of the coalition that will eventually dissolve it.”
The White House has insisted that Trump is not abandoning the wall, and Trump tweeted that he hasn’t reached a deal with Democrats, though he went on to tweet conditions that generally matched what Democratic officials said had been discussed.
The reality is, Trump has plenty of leeway with his base, which is channeling frustrations over the lack of legislative accomplishments—the big issue for conservatives right now—squarely at Congress.
Fox News host Sean Hannity was roundly mocked on Twitter Wednesday when he sought to blame Senate Majority Mitch McConnell for Trump’s immigration dealings. But his remarks captured exactly where much of the grassroots is.
“Well Mitch GREAT JOB! You failed so miserably with Healthcare and ‘excessive expectations’ now @POTUS has to deal with Dem Leaders!” he tweeted irately.
And Rep. Lou Barletta, a Pennsylvania congressman running for Senate who was a major Trump ally during the campaign, also gave the president a pass for dealing with Democrats.
“I do understand that he’s very frustrated in how things are not getting done, hence he’s talking with the Democrats,” he said, according to the Allentown, Pa. Morning Call. “What’s he supposed to do if he can’t get anything done here? He didn’t come here to do nothing.”
Then there are also those in the conservative movement who support border security but don’t necessarily like the idea of rounding up and deporting undocumented immigrants who have spent most of their lives here and are contributing to society now.
“I go back to George W. Bush’s compassionate conservatism: how do you do that with these kids, some of them serving in the military? What do we do, pluck them out of Afghanistan and send them back to Guatemala?” said Karen Fesler, a veteran conservative activist in Iowa who voted for Trump last November and doesn’t regret it. “The president is pragmatic in this approach. He’s got to be very careful with the likes of Sen. Schumer and Congresswoman Pelosi, he needs to be very cautious with dealing with some of those people, but he needs to be cautious in dealing with Republicans too. It’s a very pragmatic way of getting some stuff done. I don’t see a problem with that.”
Virginia GOP Chairman John Whitbeck stressed that the president has said there is no deal yet, but the onus will be on Congress to get something done, he said.
“The grassroots of our party is really looking to Congress as the problem right now,” he said, “and not the president.”