When he wasn’t having temper tantrums in a Manhattan courtroom, Donald Trump — the one-man wrecking ball destroying political norms — turned his attention to Congress last week, with predictable results.
In public statements and private messages to Capitol Hill, Trump announced that all loyal (to him) Republicans should oppose any immigration legislation whatsoever unless he deemed it “perfect.” As the defrocked president put it Friday in one of his bizarrely capitalized statements on social media: “A Border Deal now would be another Gift to the Radical Left Democrats.”
Much of the recent commentary about Trump’s destructive tactics on immigration revolves around the political question of whether Democrats can turn this into a boomerang issue about GOP obstruction.
According to The Washington Post, Democrats, meanwhile, see political opportunity in Republicans’ divisions whether or not the bill passes.
Maybe Trump’s opposition to a deal leads Republicans to walk away from it. If that happens: “I think we know who to blame,” said Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., who represents a crucial swing state. “The person that orchestrates it and then the individuals that follow him.”
It is admittedly not a good look for the GOP, especially when combined with the determination of House Republicans this week to impeach Alejandro Mayorkas, the secretary of Homeland Security, for the “high crime” of being the secretary of Homeland Security.
But emphasizing the political angles normalizes Trump’s outrageous behavior by turning it into just another campaign tactic. It is neither healthy nor patriotic for a presidential candidate to actively work to make things worse for America so that the incumbent can be blamed.
Historical parallels are hard to come up with — and the few that are there are deeply disturbing.
In 1968, Anna Chennault, working as an unofficial emissary of Richard Nixon’s campaign, pressed the South Vietnamese government to delay peace talks to derail Democrat Hubert Humphrey’s presidential campaign. President Lyndon Johnson privately called the effort “treason.”
Last year Ben Barnes, a former Texas lieutenant governor, revealed that he was part of a deliberate effort in 1980 to undermine President Jimmy Carter. Along with former Treasury Secretary John Connally, Barnes toured Middle Eastern capitals to signal to Iran not to release the American hostages before the election because they would get a better deal from Ronald Reagan.
Then, turning to purely domestic matters, Mitch McConnell refused to even grant Supreme Court nominee Merrick B. Garland a courtesy hearing after he was tapped by President Barack Obama in March 2016. McConnell somehow forgot this election-year precedent when Trump nominated Amy Coney Barrett to the court in September 2020.
Trump’s pronouncements probably signaled the death knell of immigration reform this year. Lacking a will of their own, most House Republicans obediently fell in line with Speaker Mike Johnson, calling the still-to-be-unveiled legislation “dead on arrival.”
It’s almost as if House Republicans, in particular, are in a limbo contest with prizes for how low they can go in pleasing Trump.
Conservative Oklahoma Sen. James Lankford, the lead Republican negotiator on immigration, deserves credit for his pluck in a nearly impossible situation. The Oklahoma GOP state committee just approved a resolution that “strongly condemns” Lankford for the sin of trying to legislate.
With the text of the Senate bill still under wraps, Lankford gamely tried to exude optimism when asked about Trump’s comments on “Face the Nation” on Sunday. “I’m looking forward to President Trump having the opportunity to be able to read it like everybody else,” he said on the CBS program. “There’s a lot of misinformation out there right now that I hear … that it waives in 5,000 people, it hands out work permits that — all those things are not true.”
But facts don’t matter in the Trump universe. Approving anything that has a glimmer of a chance of lessening a national problem is, by definition, an act of disloyalty to Trump.
In his January 2017 inaugural address, Trump thundered, “We will no longer accept politicians who are all talk and no action, constantly complaining but never doing anything about it.” But that is precisely the kind of politician that Trump has become: a blowhard “constantly complaining” and working overtime to derail progress.
Remember, it’s only January of an endless election year. It is chilling to imagine how much more legislative mayhem Trump could trigger in the months ahead.
Maybe the oft-indicted Republican presidential candidate will decide that it is in his political interest for the government to shut down for months. Maybe impeaching President Joe Biden on nebulous grounds would feed Trump’s passion for empty spectacle and retribution.
Conventional wisdom suggests that presidential election years are dead zones for serious legislation. But that isn’t necessarily the case when an incumbent president believes he needs to compromise in an effort to buttress his position.
The prime example is Bill Clinton, who enraged many of his liberal supporters by signing a far-reaching welfare reform bill less than three months before the 1996 election. Of course, no modern president could triangulate like Clinton, but that example is probably not lost on Biden.
With Biden winning only 18 percent approval for his handling of “the immigration situation on the U.S.-Mexico border” in an ABC News poll earlier this month, it is easy to understand White House nervousness. But rather than taking advantage of a chance to score a legislative victory over the skittish Democrats, congressional Republicans at Trump’s behest prefer to bellow at the moon.
It was all in keeping with the Trump presidency, when posturing about the border — remember Mexico supposedly paying for his proposed wall? — took precedence over doing much about it. The scary thing, more than nine months from the election, is that Trump has only begun with his 2024 campaign of irresponsibility and havoc.
Walter Shapiro is a staff writer for The New Republic and a lecturer in political science at Yale. He is a veteran of USA Today, Time, Newsweek and The Washington Post.