The Story of an Erratic President and His Nativist Chief of Staff

The Washington Post adds some details to the accounts of what led up to the White House meeting in which Trump rejected the bipartisan proposal on DACA, followed by his shithole remarks.

The first is that Trump had been supportive of the negotiations undertaken by Senators Durbin and Graham in a phone call less than two hours before the meeting began.

When President Trump spoke by phone with Sen. Richard J. Durbin around 10:15 a.m. last Thursday, he expressed pleasure with Durbin’s outline of a bipartisan immigration pact and praised the high-ranking Illinois Democrat’s efforts, according to White House officials and congressional aides.

The president then asked if Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), his onetime foe turned ally, was on board, which Durbin affirmed. Trump invited the lawmakers to visit with him at noon, the people familiar with the call said.

But when they arrived at the Oval Office, the two senators were surprised to find that Trump was far from ready to finalize the agreement. He was “fired up” and surrounded by hard-line conservatives such as Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), who seemed confident that the president was now aligned with them, according to one person with knowledge of the meeting.

That raises the question of what happened between 10:15 and noon. This is at least part of the answer:

In the late morning, before Durbin and Graham arrived, Kelly — who had already been briefed on the deal — talked to Trump to tell him that the proposal would probably not be good for his agenda, White House officials said. Kelly, a former secretary of homeland security, has taken an increasingly aggressive and influential role in the immigration negotiations, calling lawmakers and meeting with White House aides daily — more than he has on other topics. He has “very strong feelings,” in the words of one official.

Unlike Stephen Miller, Kelly might not be interested in sabotaging any deal on DACA, but he seems to have his own agenda.

White House officials say Kelly is determined to secure a deal on dreamers and border security and has told Trump that the southwestern border is worse than it was a few years ago — and that he can be the president to change the status quo.

For Kelly to make a case that “the southwestern border is worse than it was a few years ago,” he’ll have to account for this data:

Either Trump’s border patrols aren’t doing their job, or the number of people illegally crossing the border went down significantly in 2017.

There are two take-aways from this report that will be important to keep in mind going forward. The first is that it appears that the president is even more erratic than we have previously thought. Apparently the last person whispering in his ear (i.e., Kelly) can cause him to do a 180 degree about-face on an issue in less than two hours. In the process, Trump went from praising Senator Durbin to this:

It’s interesting that Trump referred to trust. One has to wonder how anyone can trust a president who turns on a dime so quickly and effortlessly.

The second take-away is something we’ve been watching develop. Obviously Stephen Miller isn’t the only remaining staff in the White House that harbors nativist views. He is joined in that by the former DHS Secretary and current Chief of Staff. Here is John Kelly’s developing case:

  1. He successfully implemented Trump’s “deport ’em all” policy as DHS Secretary.
  2. When questioned about his tactics by members of Congress who have responsibility for oversight, he told them to “shut up and support the men and women on the front lines.’’
  3. He lied about an African American congresswoman and called her an “empty barrel.” When the truth became public, he refused to apologize.
  4. He articulated the “lost cause” mythology about the Civil War, suggesting that there were “good people” on both sides and that the war was the result of a failure to compromise.

We can now add to the list the fact that Kelly talked Trump out of supporting a bipartisan agreement to protect the Dreamers due to some agenda he has about border security.

In closing, I’ll simply remind you that Josh Marshall once described John Kelly as “Trumpist ideology in a more disciplined, duty-focused, professional package.” Contrary to how he was originally billed, Kelly is never going to be the one who reigns in the worst of Trump. In this case, it looks like he actually threw gasoline on the fire.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60 .