For the second week in a row, President Trump is working more closely with Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer than his own party.
Last week, in a meeting with Democratic and Republican congressional leaders, the president agreed to a Democratic proposal to extend government funding and raise the debt ceiling for three months, even though House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell opposed that deal. On Wednesday night, Trump met with Pelosi, the House minority leader, and Schumer, the Senate minority leader, at the White House — without inviting McConnell and Ryan.
Pelosi and Schumer said that Trump agreed to legislation that would codify former President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals executive action, which shields undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children from deportation and which Trump rescinded last week. In a series of tweets Thursday morning, Trump said no formal agreement was reached. He did, however, seem open to some kind of DACA law, praising the program’s recipients as “good, educated and accomplished young people.”
Even without a DACA deal, Trump meeting alone with the Democrats is unusual. What is he doing? The president largely shunned Democrats and governed solely with the GOP for the first eight months of his presidency. Here are four theories about what’s going on:
1. He is mad at McConnell and Ryan
Remember last month when McConnell and Trump were feuding publicly, with the president blaming McConnell for the failure of the Obamacare repeal effort while the Senate leader suggested that the president didn’t fully understand the legislative process? If you don’t recall, I’m sure the president does. Maybe the president is engaged in a kind of payback against McConnell, cutting him and other Republican party leaders out of key decisions.
A related but slightly different version of this theory is that Trump — having watched congressional Republicans unsuccessfully try to pass the Obamacare repeal — doesn’t think McConnell and Ryan are up to the job of getting major legislation done. That was the spin on Wednesday night from Fox News host Sean Hannity, perhaps the president’s most loyal supporter in the media:
2. He doesn’t care about caving to the Democrats on DACA or the debt ceiling
Trump held a Rose Garden ceremony to personally announce that he was pulling the U.S. out of the Paris climate change agreement. In contrast, he left the announcement that the administration was rescinding DACA to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and only hours after Sessions spoke, the president seemed to open the door to restoring DACA by letting Congress pass a law to codify the policy. Trump’s hardline immigration stance helped win him the GOP nomination in 2016, but he certainly isn’t acting as though killing DACA is a personal priority for him.
Similarly, using the debt ceiling as leverage for federal spending cuts is a big priority of Republicans in Congress, particularly the conservative House Freedom Caucus, but perhaps not for Trump.
So, Trump may not care about these issues that much. And he may have a higher priority ….
3. Trump may be trying to focus his party and Congress on tax reform
Trump and his staff seemed at times disengaged from the Obamacare repeal process. But the president has given speeches in Missouri and North Dakota to tout tax reform in the last few weeks. He tweets about it often. His top aides, such as Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, are heavily involved in trying to draft a tax reform bill on Capitol Hill. Trump dealing with the debt ceiling and DACA largely on his own allows congressional leaders to spend the majority of their time on taxes.
Are we watching Trump begin to behave more like a normal, modern president, setting a major legislative priority and trying to direct his staff, Congress and the public to focus singularly on that goal? Maybe, maybe not. After the meeting with Pelosi and Schumer, Trump was tweeting about Hillary Clinton and her new book.
4. Trump is now governing from the center
This is the most radical theory: Trump, after a dismal seven months that left him as the most unpopular first-year president in modern history, has decided to change course. He’s looking to cut deals and govern in a bipartisan manner or at least act in a way that will get him good press and approval from Washington elites.
We have way, way too little evidence to take this idea too seriously, at least for now. And this would be a major shift for the president. Trump has picked some deeply conservative Cabinet members, relied on the Federalist Society and the Heritage Foundation to help him figure out who to appoint to federal judgeships and rolled back a slew of Obama administration initiatives. His controversial response to the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, happened less than a month ago.
I could come up with a few more theories. But here’s the thing: We don’t know yet. No one does. Trump cutting deals with Democrats this month could be the start of a new political strategy. Or maybe it’s just an aberration — the product of a unique set of circumstances and incentives. The Republicans, the Democrats, the media and even Trump’s own staff have been confused by the last two weeks, and no one can tell you where it’s all going.