When President Trump announced in September that he was ending the Obama-initiated Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, he called on Congress to come up with a legislative solution to shield its roughly 800,000 beneficiaries from deportation.
Last week a bipartisan group of lawmakers came to Trump with an immigration deal. Though it might have met Trump administration’s hazily defined requirements, and probably could have passed both chambers of Congress with the president’s support, the White House rejected it because it didn’t satisfy far-right lawmakers like Senator Tom Cotton.
Then Trump blew up the whole negotiation process with his reported complaint that the U.S. is taking in too many people from “shitholes” like Haiti, El Salvador, and African countries, instead of places like Norway.
That likely increased the odds that Congress fails to strike a deal before the government runs out of money on Friday. While forcing a shutdown over the fate of the Dreamers had once seemed like a risky strategy for Democrats, the uproar over Trump’s remark makes it easier for them to blame the situation on the unreasonable demands of a demonstrably racist president.
But over the weekend, Republicans came up with a plan: (1) Insist that despite what you might have heard, Trump wouldn’t say something so racist. (2) Complain that they are at the mercy of the Democratic minority, whose members are hell-bent on shutting down the government.
While Fox News’ initial instinct was to argue that Trump is right about the countries being “shitholes” (and thus, their inhabitants being less deserving than people from awesome countries like Norway), some GOP lawmakers tried a different tactic: claiming the president said nothing of the sort. On Sunday Republican Senators Tom Cotton and David Perdue said that they didn’t hear Trump make the vulgar remark in last week’s Oval Office meeting, essentially calling Democratic Senator Dick Durbin a liar.
Trump, who didn’t initially deny making the remark, helped muddy the waters when he tweeted that he used language that was “tough,” but not what Durbin said. He added that he didn’t insult Haiti, allowing for the possibility that he did insult El Salvador and African countries.
The president issued a clearer denial on Sunday evening, when reporters outside Trump International in Miami asked about his controversial remarks. “They weren’t made,” Trump said.
As for the accusations of racism, he responded: “No, no, I am not a racist. I am the least racist person you have ever interviewed. That, I can tell you.”
Trump also pushed the idea that Democrats should be blamed for a potential shutdown, tweeting on Sunday that they’re determined to take money from the military. (A slight modification from Friday’s message, in which he falsely suggested that the military would stop operating during a shutdown.)
Senator Cotton articulated the GOP line more clearly on Sunday afternoon, suggesting that Democrats are forcing a government shutdown to benefit “illegal immigrants” — and it will cost them every vulnerable Senate seat in 2018.
There are a few problems with this strategy. First, not every Republican is on board. Senator Lindsey Graham seemed to confirm Durbin’s account, saying “following comments by the president, I said my piece directly to him yesterday.” On ABC’s This Week, Senator Jeff Flake said he talked to the lawmakers immediately after the “shithole” incident and, “They said those words were used before those words went public.”
Flake defended his Democratic colleagues even further, denying that they just want a shutdown.
“One thing I do take big issue with the president on is he is saying that the Democrats aren’t moving forward in good faith,” Flake said. “I can tell you I’ve been negotiating and working with the Democrats on immigration for 17 years and on this issue, on DACA or on the DREAM Act for a number of years, and the Democrats are negotiating in good faith.”
The other dicey part of trying to brand Democrats as the “shutdown party” is that it makes Republicans look weak and disorganized at a time when there are already questions about their inability to do more than pass unpopular tax cuts, despite controlling Congress and the White House.
Convincing people that Democrats deserve most of the blame might be difficult too. In an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll from mid-December, 62 percent of respondents said Congress should extend protections for DACA recipients, and 19 percent said they should let the program expire. When asked who they would blame if the government shut down, 31 percent said congressional Republicans, 29 percent said congressional Democrats, and 18 percent said Trump. Presumably Trump disparaging “shithole” countries won’t improve those numbers for Republicans.
Polling on whether DACA specifically is worth forcing a government shutdown is less rosy for Democrats. However, being branded as obstructionists months before an election isn’t necessarily the end of the world. After Republicans forced a shutdown over Obamacare funding in 2013, they scored wins across the board in the 2014 midterms (including in Arkansas, where Tom Cotton beat Senator Mark Pryor, a two-term Democratic incumbent).
Despite efforts by Cotton and other Republicans to spin the situation, there’s one person who decided to end DACA, sabotaged efforts to fix it, was rebuked by the courts, and probably can’t go another week without saying something offensive — and he’s not a Democrat.