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Analysis: Trump's Televised Immigration Meeting Was an Optics Masterstroke, But What About Policy?

Before we wade into the policy implications of yesterday's immigration gathering, kudos to the White House for making the savvy decision to allow extraordinary media access to that bipartisan meeting.  Many political observers have commented on the rarity of watching legislative "sausage-making" playing out in real time, so there was definitely a certain novelty to the spectacle -- but letting cameras roll as members of both parties discussed an important issue very much felt like a civic service, too.  Regardless, it was a political masterstroke by the Trump administration: The president looked comfortably in command of the room, if not all of the facts, and appeared genuine in his desire to strike a deal that proves at least somewhat satisfactory to the various factions at the bargaining table. Americans were able to watch goal-oriented presidential leadership in action, basically on live television.  It also served as a much, much, much more effective rebuttal to deeply unflattering claims about presidential fitness in Michael Wolff's book than desperate-looking tweets.  Here is a telling reaction to the scene from a frequent Trump critic:


Yes, Trump's unfamiliarity with specific details and terminology was evident -- and somewhat ironic, given his singularly overriding emphasis on immigration matters during the campaign -- but that does not take away from the leadership dynamics and optics that spoke for themselves.  The bar was stupidly low, and he cleared it easily.  Mission accomplished, on this one: 

The White House's extremely unusual call to grant full press access to the meeting also had the side benefit of underscoring the ridiculous and frivolous nature of this sort of contextless hyperbole:


As for policy, I don't think the confab brought the two parties any closer to an agreement, and this announcement from Mitch McConnell may expose how far apart they may be on procedure and timing, as well.  What we did learn is that the president is very much open to sign literally any immigration compromise Congress manages to pass, strongly suggesting that his own stated legislative red lines are blurry and negotiable.  This is quite a comment:

There may be certain limits to that sweeping pledge, however, as illustrated by a back-and-forth with California Senator Dianne Feinstein. Twitter went ballistic when Feinstein floated the idea of a "clean" DACA bill, and Trump signaled that he was amenable to it.  He wasn't; the two were talking past each other.  What Feinstein meant by "clean" is a stand-alone bill that only formalizes the legal status of DREAMers, and nothing else.  What Trump meant in referring to a "clean" bill was achieving a DACA compromise (including enhanced border security) in relatively short order, then moving on to the more complicated business of a much wider immigration reform package (this is newsworthy unto itself, by the way).  An interjection by House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy helped clear up this confusion:


So no, Trump didn't "agree" to Feinstein's offer, before getting "corrected."  He was operating under a different definition of what "a clean bill" would means and look like.  Either way, I've written repeatedly that the contours of an acceptable agreement are pretty obvious: Codified protection from deportation for an entire class of DREAMers, in exchange for a litany of border security measures and reforms that Democrats have fairly recently endorsed -- including completing hundreds of miles of a physical barrier on the Southern border, hiring thousands of new border agents, and ending the so-called "diversity lottery" for visas.  Is a pact along those lines reasonably attainable?  In theory, yes.  But in practice, Noah Rothman has his doubts:

...On Friday, the White House requested $18 billion toward that end. There’s just one problem with this request: $18 billion isn’t a border wall. It’s a concession. The White House insists this $18 billion is only phase one of the great work that Trump promised would cover the border between Mexico and the United States. This first tranche would be dedicated, however, primarily to reinforcing the 400 miles of existing barriers while constructing another 316 miles of new fencing. In addition, the administration wants another $5 billion for new technology to police the border, $8 billion for additional personnel and training, and $1 billion for new access roads. If Republicans appropriated even half of this funding, it would be a massive investment in border security, many times the $1.6 billion Congress sought for augmented border barriers in 2006. If Republicans can get Democratic support for border-security funding in exchange for the legislative reinstatement of DACA—a program that is certain to be reinstated one way or the other—it would be a significant policy victory for the GOP...

Democrats will not be able to resist the temptation to declare Donald Trump’s wall dead, murdered by the collective hand of the Democratic Party and their willing Republican accomplices. The Democratic voting base will be primed to punish any member of their party who worked with the president to achieve his campaign promises regarding immigration—especially when the administration is rescinding protections for hundreds of thousands of long-term residents with Temporary Protected Status. And by the time Donald Trump’s core base of immigration hawks discover what the president is willing to surrender in exchange for comprehensive immigration reform, compromises that go beyond what even the reviled “Gang of Eight” was willing to consider, Trump is likely to rethink the wisdom of his own negotiations. This is how a viable compromise dies.


And thus, here is where things stand at the moment -- Tuesday's much-discussed, constructive-looking White House huddle notwithstanding:


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