President Trump made not one but four announcements Tuesday about the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a program designed to shield from deportation illegal immigrants who were brought to the United States when they were young.
First, Trump sent out his attorney general to make the legal case against former President Obama's executive action on immigration. Then he tweeted that Congress should get to work on crafting a legislative solution, followed by his White House press secretary suggesting it would have to be part of a broader deal that went beyond DACA. Finally, Trump said if lawmakers failed to act in the six-month window he provided, he might take matters into his own hands.
The flurry of activity was variously described as contradictory, self-defeating, even maddening to supporters. But based on the Obamacare fight, there's one adjective that did not apply: surprising.
During the Obamacare fight, Trump at various points endorsed repeal and replace; a clean repeal bill that delayed a replacement until later (an approach he helped scuttle when floated by Republican congressional leaders earlier in the year); "skinny repeal;" and letting Obamacare collapse under its own weight.
Such inconsistencies were especially perplexing to Republican members of Congress who were looking for guidance from the White House. They feared embracing new strategies only to have the president pull the rug out from under them, announcing a policy or tactical shift on Twitter.
But there was one consistency: All of Trump pronouncements were aimed at producing action of some kind. That's true even of Trump's argument that Republicans should let Obamacare fail: collapse wasn't the endgame; he hoped that by raising the specter of an outcome nobody wanted, he could force reluctant Democrats and Republicans strike a deal on legislation they might otherwise find wanting.
Unable to test this theory on healthcare, Trump is giving it a try on DACA. He has in effect given Congress six months to avoid a situation few lawmakers want, one where some 800,000 "Dreamers" lose their jobs and are exposed to a heightened risk of removal from the country. (Though his suggestion that he may "revisit" the issue if Congress fails to act would seem to undercut some of his leverage.)
Trump's handling of DACA is reminiscent of his Obamacare posturing in other ways. On both issues, Trump once held a more liberal position than he took during the campaign. Nevertheless, one in office he dealt primarily with those who wanted further-reaching conservative reforms — the Freedom Caucus on healthcare and Sens. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., and David Perdue, R-Ga., on immigration.
Cotton and Perdue would like to tie any legislative fix for DACA beneficiaries to their own brand of immigration reform, which is very different than the "comprehensive" variety pushed from George W. Bush's administration through the Gang of Eight. Their bill, the RAISE Act, emphasizes skills over family reunification and lower immigration numbers overall.
"We cannot repeat the mistakes of the past with a comprehensive immigration bill that does not work," Perdue said in a statement applauding Trump's decision to rescind DACA. "The RAISE Act's changes to our legal immigration system should be part of the solution."
Cotton told the Washington Examiner earlier this week that that he would be open to legalizing DACA beneficiaries if two downsides to this policy — chain migration from the newly legalized immigrants sponsoring their relatives and incentives for future illegal immigration — could be mitigated by the RAISE Act and E-verify.
On both immigration and Obamacare, fulfilling promises made during the campaign weighed heavily on Trump while the precise legislative details mattered less. "We, as a party, must fulfill that promise to repeal and replace, what they've been saying for the past seven years," Trump exhorted his fellow Republicans on Obamacare earlier this year.
Similarly, Trump made a promise on DACA in a high-profile immigration speech in Phoenix during the campaign. "We will immediately terminate President Obama's two illegal executive amnesties, in which he defied federal law and the constitution to give amnesty to approximately 5 million illegal immigrants," he vowed.
One of these amnesties never took effect, but revoking DACA helps Trump keep that promise even if his personal sympathies might be more liberal. Signing any of the various Republican healthcare bills would have helped him keep his Obamacare promises, even if again his personal sympathies appeared to be more liberal.
The problem for Trump on healthcare was that he was negotiating with people who cared more about the policy details than he did. That could be a problem for him on immigration, where Republicans are even more divided than they are on healthcare (DACA splits even immigration hawks, between those who would like to trade a legislative fix for other enforcement measures and those who think immigration laws should be enforced even against Dreamers).
Another problem for Trump on healthcare is Democrats thought they were on the winning side of the issue. They may feel the same way about DACA.
A big difference is that immigration was much more important to Trump's campaign than Obamacare and is a major part of what made him a different, more populist kind of Republican.
Trump is applying familiar tactics to a new issue. We'll see in time whether it produces a different result.