How Small Can Donald Trump Make the Presidency?


In rescinding daca, President Trump has yet again embraced a policy that ignores the real challenges facing the country, further divides it, and tarnishes its international reputation.

Photograph by Andrew Harrer / Bloomberg via Getty

For some time now, it has been clear that Donald Trump is wading ever deeper into the cesspool. From his reaction to the white-supremacist-inspired violence in Charlottesville, to his attempt to bar transgender people from serving in the armed forces, to his pardon of Joe Arpaio, the controversial former Maricopa County, Arizona, sheriff who rounded up and mistreated Latinos, Trump has recently been intent on pandering to his most embittered and prejudiced supporters.
From a cold political standpoint, these reprehensible acts may contain some logic. With his approval ratings in the mid-thirties, and with the Russia investigation seemingly closing in on him and his family, Trump’s survival depends on his ability to whip up his remaining supporters. Fear of incurring these supporters’ wrath (and a possible primary challenge) presumably prevents many congressional Republicans from breaking with the President.
With Trump, though, you can never quite be sure where to draw the lines between political calculation, personal instinct, and sheer incompetence. On Tuesday morning, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the Trump Administration would rescind Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (daca), the 2012 executive order that provides protection from deportation to more than eight hundred thousand undocumented immigrants who entered the United States as children—the Dreamers. Shortly after, the White House issued a statement in Trump’s name. “Before we ask what is fair to illegal immigrants, we must also ask what is fair to American families, students, taxpayers, and jobseekers,” the statement said. “Above all else, we must remember that young Americans have dreams too.”
The message was clear: Trump was returning to the nativist themes that propelled him during his campaign last year. To be sure, on Tuesday he also called on Congress to pass legislation preserving daca before March, when the government will stop renewing the program recipients’ status. But the White House deputy press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, indicated that Trump wouldn’t sign any immigration bill that didn’t also address other contentious issues, like border security and the rules governing legal immigration. For more than a decade now, Congress has failed to pass this type of comprehensive reform. On Capitol Hill, few people believe it is doable now.
The editors of Breitbart News, which is back under the control of Steve Bannon, Trump’s erstwhile political adviser, celebrated the daca news as a big victory. Elsewhere, criticism rained down on the White House, and some of it came from sources that are usually aligned with the Republican Party: the policy director of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a big contributor to G.O.P. campaigns, described the decision to end daca as “contrary to fundamental American principles and the best interests of our country.”
In a rare public rebuke of his successor, former President Barack Obama also entered the fray. In a Facebook post, he described the decision to end daca as cruel and self-defeating. “Ultimately, this is about basic decency,” the post said. “This is about whether we are a people who kick hopeful young strivers out of America, or whether we treat them the way we’d want our own kids to be treated. It’s about who we are as a people—and who we want to be.” A new poll from Politico/Morning Consult indicated that most Americans agreed with Obama. Fifty-eight per cent of respondents said that Dreamers should be given a path to citizenship; only fifteen per cent said they should be deported.
In the face of all this criticism, and a raft of news stories focussing on the stories of individual Dreamers—one of whom was killed after driving a hundred miles to rescue victims of the Hurricane Harvey floods in Houston—Trump appeared to waver. In a brief exchange with reporters at the White House, he said, “I have a love for these people and hopefully now Congress will be able to help them and do it properly.” On Tuesday night, Trump wrote on Twitter: “Congress now has 6 months to legalize daca (something the Obama Administration was unable to do). If they can’t, I will revisit this issue!”
What did this mean? Did Trump, as some reports have suggested, sign onto a policy decision without understanding the full ramifications? Did Sessions and his former aide Stephen Miller, who is now the senior adviser for policy at the White House, roll him? Or was he simply trying to have it both ways: Looking to rally his base but also to minimize the broader political fallout?
In a sense, the answers to these questions don’t matter very much. As he often does, Trump looks resolute in his irresolution. On the golf course, he is known for taking mulligans—do-overs that carry no penalty. But as David Gergen, who advised four Presidents, pointed out on CNN late on Tuesday night, there are no mulligans in the White House.
Ending daca is now the official policy of the Trump Administration. One vague tweet doesn’t change that, and it won’t reassure the hundreds of thousands of Dreamers whose entire future has now been cast into doubt. ABC News obtained a set of talking points that the Administration had circulated to Republican lawmakers. It said, “The Department of Homeland Security urges daca recipients to use the time remaining on their work authorizations to prepare for and arrange their departure from the United States—including proactively seeking travel documentation.”
Yet again, Trump has embraced a policy that targets the politically powerless, ignores the real challenges facing the country, further divides it, and tarnishes its international reputation. (“What a cruel, sour place is Trump’s America,” Helen O’Rahilly, an Irish television executive, wrote on Twitter.) A Presidency that has been shrinking before our eyes practically since its first day has been further diminished. Eventually, it may well shrink to nothing. But, between now and then, look for things to get even uglier.




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