It was awesome this week to watch Donald Trump in action - or, more accurately, inaction.
Clearly stung by Michael Wolff’s true portrayal, in “Fire and Fury,” of a guy whose sole core conviction is himself, a guy of limited intellect who knows squat about policy, Trump invited the media to watch him preside over a White House confab on immigration with congressional leaders. He got a few good reviews, because at this point the bar is so low that if he stays semi-attentive for 55 minutes without tweeting or drooling, somebody inevitably concludes that This Was The Moment When He Became President of the United States.
But the camera doesn’t lie. It was glaringly obvious that on the issue of immigration, mostly notably the future of the 700,000 dreamers (the undocumented immigrants who came to America as kids), the very stable genius has no idea what he believes. Based on what he said at the meeting, he believes in everything that everyone in both parties said - although he’d be fine with endorsing all of it or none of it, depending on what they want to do or not do.
That’s the gist, compliments of a weak president who wants to lead from behind. Way behind.
Republican senators, in particular, were hoping that Trump would say what he wants; after all, in a normally functioning government, it’s the president who frames the issues, and provides policy direction, for his congressional allies. But alas, as Sen. James Lankford admitted later, the meeting “got confusing at times.”
At times Trump appeared to endorse the Democrats’ idea of simply allowing the dreamers to stay in America, with no conditions attached - in legislative parlance, a “clean bill.” When Sen. Dianne Feinstein asked on camera whether Trump would support a clean dreamer bill, he immediately declared, “Yeah, I would like to do it.”
Huh? Isn’t that the opposite of what his Republican allies currently want? And isn’t that the opposite of what he promised his white-grievance fan base during the 2016 campaign, when he vowed that “on day one” he would kick the dreamers out of the country?
Well, yes. But what he vowed in 2016 was the opposite of what he believed in 2011, when he surfaced on Fox News to praise the dreamers: “You have people in this country for 20 years. They’ve done a great job, they’ve done wonderfully, they’ve gone to school, they’ve gotten good marks, they’re productive. Now we’re supposed to send them out of the country? I don’t believe in that.”
On Tuesday, his reaction to Feinstein vividly confirmed what Wolff says in his book, that Trump simply agrees with the last person who advises him. And as soon as Trump said yes to Feinstein, House majority leader Kevin McCarthy sought to be the last-last person to advise him. He quickly jumped in to gently tutor the pupil: “Mr. President, you need to be clear, though... . You have to have security.”
Trump later appeared to correct himself and say that, yeah, he wants dreamers plus security. And his press office tried to clean up the mess by purging his apparent support for a clean dreamer bill from the official White House transcript. When his flacks were subsequently asked why Trump’s comment was mysteriously gone, they hilariously insisted that the omission was inadvertent.
At other points in the meeting, Trump said that he’s willing to support comprehensive immigration reform - including a path to citizenship - and hoped the negotiations would happen very soon. But when Republican Sen. David Perdue said it can’t happen soon because Congress needs to focus on keeping the government open and passing a budget, Trump left the impression that he’d be fine with that too.
All told, his wobbles infuriated the rabid right, which doesn’t want a citizenship path at all. As Ann Coulter tweeted, “Nothing Michael Wolff could say about Trump has hurt him as much as the [dreamer] lovefest right now.”
Whoever knew that governing could be so hard? On immigration, the congressional Republicans want guidance and direction, but their so-called leader is a rudderless ship. At one point, he actually said: “I think my positions are going to be what the people in this room come up with. I am very much reliant on the people in this room.”
It’s so refreshing when he doesn’t lie.
Dick Polman is the national political columnist at NewsWorks/WHYY in Philadelphia (newsworks.org/polman) and a “Writer in Residence” at the University of Pennsylvania. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.