Donald Trump’s entire political career has been a bizarre exercise in large-scale lowering of the bar for what’s considered acceptable conduct in a high-ranking public official. But we as a society somehow reached a new low Tuesday afternoon after Trump staged a pointless, unproductive televised discussion of immigration policy with several members of Congress and successfully earned media plaudits for the feat of not suffering from any obvious symptoms of dementia.
I wish I were exaggerating, but this literally happened.
Emily Stephenson, a Politico editor, tweeted that the session was “a rebuke of reports that [Trump] is less than fully capable” while promoting a Louis Nelson story that congratulated the president for his ability to recall the names of the participants in the meeting he organized.
I asked what about the meeting demonstrated that Trump is capable, and she replied that she meant, quite literally, that the meeting seemed to show that Trump knows the names of several members of Congress.
This tendency reached comical new heights via David Martosko of the Daily Mail, who first congratulated Trump for a commanding display the likes of which we’d never seen from Barack Obama before swiftly retreating to the contention that Trump had proven he’s not senile.
This tendency has reached new heights (or maybe lows) thanks to Michael Wolff’s new book Fire and Fury, which is squarely focused on unflattering assessments of the president’s fitness for office from members of his own staff. But while I cannot believe this actually has to be said, “not senile” is not an appropriate bar to set for the president of the United States, and an afternoon of lucidity doesn’t even prove Trump meets this bar.
An effective president doesn’t need to understand all the details of every policy issue under the sun, but he needs to understand some of them (the ones he’s made the focus of his administration, for example), and he needs to demonstrate a capacity to get up to speed on the whole range of often unexpected problems that end up landing on the president’s desk. The meeting yesterday was a clear indictment of Trump in this regard.
The issue at hand was the fate of hundreds of thousands of DREAMers whose lives Trump capriciously threw into chaos last year. Time is running out for these people, whose welfare has been jeopardized through his own action. And by far the most important takeaway from the president’s day of DACA is that he is doing this for no good reason and, indeed, barely seems to understand what’s happening.
Trump’s chitchat proves nothing
As anyone who’s ever watched an elderly relative decline mentally can tell you, a discrete spell of lucidity is hardly proof that nothing is wrong. Just the previous night, for example, Trump appeared to forget the lyrics to “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Others think the issue was simply that Trump doesn’t hear very well.
Studies show, however, that hearing loss in the elderly is strongly correlated with cognitive decline, so I’m not sure this really gets Trump out of the woods.
Those touting Trump’s ability to remember the names of the members of Congress he was talking to, meanwhile, should probably note that everyone was seated around the table with name placards. So really nothing at all was demonstrated about the president’s memory — according to Trump himself, it’s “one of the great memories of all time” but we’re long past the point where we expect him to conduct himself with a modicum of honesty — beyond his ability to read.
All that said, to be even arguing about this is well beyond the point of absurd. The thing we saw on full display at the meeting was that when it comes to immigration policy — the closest thing Trump has to a signature issue — the president of the United States has zero substantive command of the topic.
Trump has no idea what he’s talking about
The key exchange of the afternoon came when Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) asked the president if he might like to completely abandon his administration’s stated position on the issue under discussion and, instead, adopt the Democratic position.
“What about a clean DACA bill now,” she asked “with a commitment that we go into a comprehensive immigration reform procedure like we did, you know, back when Kennedy was here?”
At this point, you would expect a Republican Party politician to restate the Republican Party’s position on the issue — that action for DACA recipients should be paired with some form of border security measures, and that no kind of “comprehensive” reform makes sense until such time as total border security has been achieved. One might even expect a Republican Party politician to offer some kind of argument in favor of this position, an explanation of its merits.
Trump, instead, just said he agreed with Feinstein! “I have no problem — I think that’s basically what Dick is saying,” he said, referring to Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), who, as a Democrat, agrees with Feinstein’s position rather than Trump’s. Except Trump seemed to think he, Durbin, and Feinstein were all on the same page: “We’re going to come up with DACA, we’re going to do DACA, and then we can start with phase two, which would be comprehensive.”
It was then left to Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) to gently correct the president and say, “Mr. President, you need to be clear, though. I think what Senator Feinstein is asking there — when we talk about just DACA, we don’t want to be back here two years later. You have to have security.”
Trump, confused, said, “I think that’s what she’s saying.”
McCarthy, like a real politician with some kind of cursory grasp of what’s happening in American politics, again corrected the president: “No, I think she’s saying something different.”
At the end of the day, McCarthy’s position prevailed and the discussion broke up with no meaningful progress having occurred beyond Trump’s line about a “clean” DACA deal getting mysteriously omitted from the White House transcript, as the Washington Post reported yesterday. Republicans and Democrats remained in their respective corners, and for Republicans this is apparently good enough. Trump may not have any grasp of what his own party — indeed, his own administration — is doing, but he defers to congressional Republicans on policy matters and is probably not suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Congratulations, America!
Trump is harming the country
There’s something more than a little pointless about the mental fitness debate. Trump is, for better or worse, now pursuing an utterly orthodox Republican Party approach on every policy issue under the sun. Ultimately, Trump’s slothful work habits and boundless incuriosity are more a problem for that party’s leaders than for anyone else. If their considered judgment is that this policy agenda is better pursued by a lazy, ignorant cable news addict than by Mike Pence, that’s really their problem.
The agenda itself, however, is a problem.
And lost in the shuffle of whether we’re supposed to be impressed that Trump remembers Feinstein’s name is “Dianne” or appalled that he can’t remember what his position on DACA is, we have the fact that Trump’s position on DACA is appalling.
Trump canceled DACA supposedly out of scrupulous worry that extending deportation protection and work permits to this group of immigrants exceeded the Obama administration’s legitimate constitutional authority. On a policy level, however, Ike Brannon and Logan Albright of the Cato Institute have concluded that “deporting the approximately 750,000 people currently in the DACA program would be over $60 billion to the federal government along with a $280 billion reduction in economic growth over the next decade.”
Of course, there is no realistic way that all 750,000 DACA recipients will be deported, but losing legal authorization to live and work in the United States will hurt them nonetheless by forcing them out of the legitimate labor market and into the shadows. A report compiled this summer by the Center for American Progress concluded that obtaining DACA protection raised recipients’ wages by 69 percent on average, and it stands to reason that losing it would cause a large-scale reversal with concomitant negative effects for GDP growth, productivity, and tax collection.
With the economy finally enjoying low unemployment (as Trump likes to brag), there is no conceivable upside to deporting a large group of young, well-educated workers who are contributing meaningfully to the American economy. Which is precisely why Republicans keep teasing their willingness to offer them some legislative relief. But instead of doing the right thing for the country, the GOP is hung up on the idea of using the DACA issue as leverage to jam up the Democrats and either extract some concessions on other immigration issues or force the party into an internecine argument about whether they are doing enough for the DREAMers.
This may or may not work in the end, and Trump may or may not understand what’s going on, but what’s clearly true is that it’s already harming hundreds of thousands of people and will only continue to harm them — and the public at large — more the longer it continues. It’s cynical, it’s appalling, and it fundamentally does Trump no favors to insist that he’s mentally acute and fully in command of the agenda he’s unleashed.