WASHINGTON — President Trump has worn a lot of hats in his life. The real estate magnate. The reality TV star. The right-winger. The outsider. Now he’s trying something new: The bipartisan president.
Trump is channeling his disruptive forces into a potentially more productive drive — an attempt to forge compromises on immigration, federal spending, and possibly tax reform. He’s doing this as he approaches the last real legislative stretch of the year, having failed so far to ring up any meaningful accomplishments from Congress.
Whether this new approach is method or madness is unclear — and it’s definitely outside the norms of how Washington has operated in recent years. Perhaps it’s a sign of how bad Washington’s partisan warfare has become that the city is completely stunned a Republican president would try to cut deals with Democrats.
But as in every iteration of Trump so far, his latest moves have rocked the nation’s capital to the core, raising familiar questions about whether Trump is acting brilliantly or impulsively as he struggles to find his footing in his new job.
The latest deal, a tentative compromise to protect 800,000 young immigrants from deportation, came after a dinner with Democratic congressional leaders Nancy Pelosi and Charles Schumer.
That Trump even broke bread with them surprised members of his own party, and conservatives were especially outraged that he seemed to be abandoning his demand for a border wall as part of the same deal.
But instead of merely roiling his own Republican Party, as he frequently does with unconventional comments, Trump’s latest phase has also gobsmacked Democrats. They wonder if their leaders are about to give away key priorities for a deal with a president who has so far proven to be erratic.
“I don’t think that the president understands what he’s saying half the time,” said Representative Ruben Gallego, an Arizona Democrat. “I’m afraid that if we strike a deal with him, he’ll got back on his word at any point.”
Continuing to inflame the hyperpartisan, angry base that got him elected, Trump kept up his overtures to Democrats Thursday, using the outreach as a warning to Republicans who have been unable to pass major legislation including a health care overhaul.
“If they’re unable to stick together, then I’m going to have to get a little help from the Democrats,” Trump told reporters while on a trip to tour hurricane damage in Florida.
Those comments came after Trump discussed the broad outlines of an immigration deal over dinner at the White House with the two top congressional Democrats. It would involve allowing roughly 800,000 undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children, known as dreamers, to stay and work legally. It also would include new measures to harden the country’s southern border. But strikingly, it wouldn’t include building a physical wall, which Trump repeatedly promised in his campaign. Trump said he would insist on money for a wall separately.
It’s part of a conciliation with Democrats that started last week when he struck a deal with the minority leaders to postpone a contentious vote on lifting the country’s debt ceiling while providing relief for Texas hurricane victims. He also accepted advice from House minority leader Pelosi about his Twitter feed and posted a message supportive of the dreamers.
“He’s sending a loud and clear message to the House and Senate majority that we either get our act together or he’s going to move the ball forward with votes that he can move the ball forward with,” said Tom MacArthur, a New Jersey Republican.
But few in the Capitol were celebrating the sudden outbreak of bipartisanship. That’s in part because Trump so often changes his mind that members of Congress from both parties said they weren’t sure if the new Trump could be trusted.
Gallego, like many Democrats, was concerned that his own leadership might be considering a deal that he wouldn’t support. He wants the Congressional Hispanic Caucus to be consulted on immigration deals — which he said had not happened by Thursday morning.
“We’re not going to trade the protection of dreamers for the deportation of others,” Gallego said. He added: “I don’t know yet whether to be upset or not.”
The bipartisan approach also elicited concern from Trump’s party that he might get used to working with Democrats.
“Having to go to Chuck Schumer to do something ostensibly Republican will be the death of the Republican agenda,” said Representative Trent Franks, an Arizona Republican.
On Thursday, Trump also hit notes that were closer to Democratic orthodoxy on tax reform, potentially expanding the bipartisan mood past immigration.
“The wealthiest Americans are not my priority,” Trump said. “My priority are people in the middle class and that’s where we’re giving the big tax reduction to.”
Representative Richard Neal, the top Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee, said he’s been hearing similar comments from the administration all year. He pointed to a springtime meeting he had with Gary Cohn, one of Trump’s top advisers on tax reform, who offered a similar message.
“Cohn went so far as to say that the wealthy would be very upset when they saw what was coming,” said Neal, who represents Western Massachusetts.
Provisions with broad bipartisan support — including ending the so-called carried interest loophole that gives a tax benefit to some of the wealthiest citizens — are likely to be in the bill, he said.
But Trump’s famously short attention span and lack of discipline mean that Neal, along with his Republican colleagues, are still unsure. “We’ve had mixed messages,” Neal said. “He’s clearly at this moment not on the same page with the traditional Republican positions.”
The notion, though, of Democratic support for even some of Trump’s ideas is controversial to the Democrats in Congress, who are seeing their own base energized in opposition to the president.
Helping to deliver a win for Trump could either get them in trouble at home, or worse from their perspective, do what Trump has failed to do so far and broaden his support in the country by showing that he really can deliver deals.
“I have never seen the turmoil that I have seen here,” said Representative Debbie Dingell, a Michigan Democrat, who is close with Pelosi. She said there were divisions among Democrats over how to approach Trump, and she defended the minority leader.
“Our focus needs to be what the substance of the issues is as we try to solve these problems,” she said. “All of us have got constituents who are scared to death.”
Trump’s new persona managed to expose divides in his own conservative base, who worry the president is losing sight of who sent him to the White House and have been alarmed by the last two weeks.
“Trump needs to stand boldly for the values that got him elected,” said Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage, which opposed LGBT rights. “If you ask me if I’m concerned, of course I am.”
Brown said he thinks “conservatives, in general, are concerned” right now.
“Our view is that in any way capitulating to Democrats, who have done everything in their power to undermine the president, that is not a good solution,” Brown added.
Conservative author Ann Coulter sounded anguished. “Put a fork in Trump, he’s dead,” she wrote on Twitter.
But Ralph Reed, the evangelical leader, said Trump should have some room to negotiate with Democrats.
“The truth is most big issues get resolved on a bipartisan basis. That’s always been the case.”