President Trump’s address to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday night demonstrated yet again that he is now in complete control of America’s immigration agenda. At about the 24 minute mark, he begins to discuss immigration. It was short, sweet and to the point. The language is being widely celebrated as a shift in tone – more conciliatory and more unifying. On immigration policy, he restated steps to date to control borders and the universal principles that will guide any true immigration reform: “What would you say to the American family that loses their jobs, their income or their loved one because America refused to uphold its laws and defend its borders? Our obligation is to preserve, protect and defend the citizens of the United States,” said Trump.
This is a consensus statement. It continues Trump’s efforts begun in his campaign to reframe how the nation sees the role of immigration and its purposes. Trump shows empathy for the victims of out of control immigration.
Yet earlier in the day, Trump surrogates – even Trump himself – floated the notion of a possible legislative “compromise” that might include a large-scale legalization program, something that the rumor mill circulated during the presidential campaign.
The key word here is compromise. The implication here is that this is a nascent legislative proposal and a challenge to the Democrats and anti-enforcement Republicans to step up and make a deal.
The chattering class – while ever suspicious – is relieved to see Trump in full presidential mode. Trump, they maintain, has the root of a compromiser that can move to the center. They say this despite the fact that last night’s speech contained no mention of a deal!
Here is yet another example of Trump’s pure genius as a showman and media manipulator. Countering the droning narrative of Trump-inspired division and polarization, the president repositioned to look like the conciliator and dealmaker. In doing so, he caught the Democrats completely off guard while winning broad public consensus that this really was an inspiring speech delivered in a presidential manner.
The Democrats have taken the bait by appearing obstructionist; they stand for total opposition at all costs and are now being trapped by a master manipulator. Egged on by the legacy press, the Democrats have stood firmly against all immigration enforcement to the point of projecting an unyielding unreasonableness. Trump’s proposal for an office to help American’s who’ve lost loved ones because the government won’t control our borders was met with jeers and boos from Democrats.
Politically damaging? You bet. Big mistake. Trump is no fool and he knows how to set up the head fake. But why? What Trump’s end game here?
Trump’s goal is to demonstrate to the country that today’s Democratic Party is unwilling to compromise on border and immigration controls at any level. By floating informal ideas of this kind, he can show the nation that only he can really get things done in D.C. Meantime, he continues to tighten enforcement – dangling out only an unsigned order on the DACA program (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) as negotiating bait.
Trump – who made a series of very specific immigration policy commitments during the campaign in August — is also setting himself up to arbiter of what constitutes a reasonable legislative compromise as well as the primary architect of what the compromise would entail. With folks like Attorney General Jeff Sessions helping to draft core legislative proposals, it’s not going to look anything like Senator Chuck Schumer’s ill-fated amnesty bill (“the Gang of 8” bill) that merely feigned a commitment to border enforcement and legal reforms.
Trump has now taken the high political ground, armed both with control over the powerful Executive Branch enforcement apparatus and the emotionally-driven messaging that would drive true legislative immigration reform. The Democrats will soon realize that they are painted into a corner and will need to shift to stop the hemorrhaging. And Trump is providing Republicans in Congress with the language and confidence that his administration can be trusted to protect the party politically as it moves forward with his immigration agenda.
Not bad. Not bad at all.