Few issues have animated President Donald Trump’s ardent supporters more than his pledge to build a wall along the nation’s Southern border. Now, Trump’s decision to put that promise aside — at least temporarily — while he pursues a deal with Democrats to protect young immigrants brought to the country illegally may test the limits of that loyalty.
Some avid Trump backers praised the president as a pragmatist trying to make deals with whomever he can. But others recoiled at the prospect of Trump joining forces with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi on immigration, and seeming to get little in return.
“Many supporters of the president wonder whether our king has been captured and (White House chief of staff John) Kelly and a clique of generals and their globalist friends are now governing,” said Roger Stone, a longtime informal adviser to Trump. His comments reflected the growing concern among some Trump backers about the diminished presence of nationalist advisers in the West Wing.
Amy Kremer, who founded the group Women Vote Trump, likened the president’s deal-making with Democrats to one of history’s most notorious political flip-flops: President George H.W. Bush’s broken campaign-trail vow that he wouldn’t raise taxes.
“If the wall doesn’t get done and he gives amnesty, he’ll lose the base,” Kremer said. “You’re going to see an absolute revolt.”
The worries were sparked by Trump’s startling efforts to forge consensus with Schumer and Pelosi — “Chuck and Nancy,” as the president has cozily referred to the Democratic duo — over the fate of nearly 800,000 people brought to the U.S. illegally as children. Trump, Schumer and Pelosi discussed the matter at a private White House dinner Wednesday night.
On Thursday morning, the president — a former Democrat himself — and the minority leaders appeared largely aligned. Trump said an agreement to allow the young immigrants to stay in the country would have to include “massive border security.” But he pointedly said a border wall, which is staunchly opposed by Democrats, could come later. He’s outlined no specific path for ultimately making that happen.
While allowing young people who came to the U.S. illegally to stay in the country is broadly popular, immigration hardliners consider it amnesty. As a candidate, Trump vowed to repeal the executive action signed by President Barack Obama allowing the young people to stay. But he’s struggled with the issue as president, often speaking sympathetically about the young immigrants. Earlier this month, he announced that he would rescind their protections in March, but said he wanted Congress to pass legislation protecting them from deportation.
Trump has tested the limits of his supporters’ loyalty before, often to find that they were unshaken by his policy reversals. He failed to fulfill his pledge to repeal Obama’s signature health care law. He’s backed off his tough talk on China, declining to label Beijing a currency manipulator. The United States is still a party to the Iran nuclear deal, despite Trump’s promise to rip up the agreement.
But immigration, and the border wall in particular, hold special resonance with Trump supporters. Some of Trump’s appeal to the white, working-class voters who formed the basis of his voting bloc stemmed from his promises to crack down on illegal immigration. At his raucous campaign rallies, voters often broke out into chants of “build that wall.”
Once in the White House, Trump’s nationalist-minded advisers, particularly strategist Steve Bannon, often pressed the president on the particular importance of fulfilling his promise on the border wall. But Bannon, who kept a tally of Trump’s campaign promises in his West Wing office, was pushed out this summer as part of Kelly’s takeover of the White House.
The headlines Thursday on Breitbart News, where Bannon returned after leaving the administration, were unforgiving. One panned the president as “Amnesty Don.” Another said Trump got “rolled” by the Democrats.
With his poll numbers sagging, Trump has spent recent weeks alternating between being deeply worried about disappointing his base and deeply frustrated with Republican lawmakers’ struggles to pass significant legislation. The GOP’s failure to pass an Obamacare overhaul in particular soured Trump’s view of Republican congressional leaders, according to advisers, and opened him up to the prospect of partnering with Democrats instead.
Some of Trump’s supporters praised the president for what they see as pragmatism.
“He’s to the point he needs to get something done. The Republican Party has failed him miserably,” said Jeff Jorgensen, the GOP chairman in western Iowa’s conservative Pottawattamie County. “Hats off to him. If you need to cross the aisle to get things done, then cross the aisle.”
There’s no guarantee that the common ground Trump found this week with Democrats on immigration will result in legislation. Republicans still control which legislation comes up for votes, and neither Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell nor House Speaker Paul Ryan appeared eager to sign on. The scope of the border security measures that would be included in an eventual bill could also undercut Democratic support.
Trump, trying to tamp down criticism that he was acquiescing to his political opponents, insisted he would eventually make good on his promises to his base.
“Ultimately, we have to have the wall,” he said. “If we don’t get the wall we’re not doing anything.”