We’ve been focused for several days on the President’s “shithole countries” remark, as we should be. But that only seems like one part of the story of that meeting, in some ways, not the most consequential or significant, inasmuch as it’s really not a surprise that President Trump thinks or speaks this way. A big story in The Washington Post and other information that has come out over the course of the day puts the whole meeting in a different light.
What seems to have happened is this. Durbin and Graham have put together their bipartisan DACA deal. President Trump has told the whole country a couple days earlier that the Senate should come up with a bipartisan deal and he’ll sign it. He’ll take the heat. He apparently speaks in similarly positive terms that morning. So Durbin and Graham head over to the White House. But the anti-immigration hardliners in the White House get a whiff of what is going on and swing into action. They bring over a bunch of anti-immigrant firebreathers from Capitol Hill. And they’re there with the President when Graham and Durbin arrive.
It has the bit of the feel of an ambush, which likely explains some of the acrimony.
What they hear from the President is very different from what they heard earlier in the week and even different from what they heard earlier in the day. Clearly, the antis who folks like Stephen Miller have brought over from the Hill have had an effect. They seem to have gotten Trump gunned up on the need to keep people from “shithole countries” out of the USA and more generally of the need to keep America … well, white.
If we’re getting at least a relatively accurate version of what happened in this meeting it paints a picture of Trump as someone who is easily manipulated and tends to agree with the last person he talked to. Both are facilitated by the fact that he has little real grasp of the issues involved beyond impulsive and racialized knee-jerk reactions. Another key issue in the background is that John Kelly appears to be a pretty hard immigration hardliner all on his own and he’s let Stephen Miller, the alt-righter Trump got from Jeff Sessions, basically run things on the immigration front.
This isn’t to let Trump off the hook for his racism. It also isn’t to say there’s a nice Trump and a racist Trump. First, you have to start with Trump as someone who is just profoundly ignorant of the details of basically all these policy issues he discusses. That makes confusion and rapid changes of position pretty easy. But there’s also the Trump who wants to be liked, wants to be making deals and probably at some level and in the abstract can get the fairness of not deporting hundreds of thousands of kids who’ve never known another country. But Trump, in addition to being easily manipulated and ignorant, is also a pretty big racist. And the people around him know how to recenter him on this antipathy to people of color and people from “shithole countries” in order to avoid what they saw as a calamitous policy and political outcome.
It is not a pretty picture on a number of levels. I think it also explains today’s follow up reports which suggest that “shithole countries” was just an example and a shorthand for a conversation in which the need to keep the country white was far more explicit than usual. The anti-dreamers seem to know how to get Trump ginned up.