In the hope of proving he is not the semiliterate ignoramus numerous media have depicted him to be, Donald Trump held a televised meeting with members of Congress to discuss immigration. It was, the White House told a friendly reporter, the president’s very own idea:
In some, very superficial aspects, the stunt fulfilled Trump’s goals. He was depicted at a table, meeting with important people and talking politics while wearing a tie, as opposed to in bed with a cheeseburger watching cable-news hits. But looking even slightly below the surface imagery, the meeting instead confirmed the very idea Trump had set out to refute. Michael Wolff had reported that Mitch McConnell said of the president, “He’ll sign anything we put in front of him.” (The line, intentionally or not, echoes a joke about Will Ferrell’s clueless, pompous Ron Burgundy character: “Anything you put on that ’prompter, Burgundy will read.”)
During the meeting, Trump put on full display his lack of interest in, or understanding of, public policy. The meeting centered on Trump’s signature policy issue, immigration, which his staff no doubt considered safe. (Imagine if they had to talk about something like health care.) At one point, Democratic senator Dianne Feinstein proposes that they pass a bill to formalize deferred action for child arrivals (DACA). Trump gives his enthusiastic ascent:
This promise so alarms his fellow Republicans that House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy is forced to interject with an explanation that, actually, Trump doesn’t like this idea at all.
At another point, Trump echoes McConnell’s assessment by saying he will sign anything they put before him:
“When this group comes back with an agreement … I’m signing it,” he promises. “I will be signing it. I’m not gonna say, ‘Oh, gee, I want this or I want that.’ I’ll be signing it. Because I have a lot of confidence in the people in this room that they’ll be coming back with something really good.”
Of course, Trump has made “deals” like this before. He cut an agreement with Democratic leaders to help the Dreamers last fall. He made an agreement with activists in 2013. Trump wants to be liked, and he fundamentally fails to understand sources of substantive disagreement between the parties. Trump may occasionally appear to be trans-ideological, but in fact he is sub-ideological. His moments of flexibility occur on those occasions when he is in the room with a moderate or a liberal, and lacks the contextual understanding to identify what about their proposals he doesn’t agree with.
Every time something like this happens, Trump’s interlocutors assume they have won him over to a new, moderate stance. This pattern has happened on immigration, health care, the Paris climate agreement — any time he listens to liberals pitching a bipartisan deal, it sounds good to him. The problem is that he quickly returns back to orthodox conservatism as soon as he is ensconced with his right-wing advisers. You can’t “pivot” if you don’t understand that you changed your stance in the first place.