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Opinion: President Trump finally finds a way to alienate his base, by flirting with Democrats on DACA

President Trump, shown with First Lady Melania Trump, speaks about his negotiations with Democrats on DACA before leaving to inspect hurricane-hit Florida.
(THEW/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

Who knew that deciding the fate of “Dreamers” would be trickier and more explosively controversial for a Republican president than agreeing to raise the debt ceiling?

President Trump won plaudits for crossing up GOP leaders to summarily cut a deal with top congressional Democrats on three key fiscal issues: raising the debt ceiling, keeping the government running past Sept. 30 and borrowing a metric megaload of dollars to help out storm victims. Hey, Trump got something done! He broke through the gridlock!

But when he seemed to close in on another bipartisan agreement — this time, to allow a group of immigrants brought into the country as children to stay even though they’re here illegally — all hell broke loose, at least among the anti-illegal-immigration zealots who’d been a key part of his base. Part of the anger stemmed from reports that Trump wouldn’t demand money for his big, beautiful border wall in exchange for protecting Dreamers from deportation. But another part was simply his willingness to let the Dreamers stay.

To pick just one example, check out what Ann Coulter, whose fervent support for Trump now appears to be about as reliable as Trump’s support for anyone else, tweeted Thursday:

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Trump may still be able to shoot someone while standing in the middle of 5th Avenue without losing a single supporter, but he has found one line his base won’t let him cross. Or rather, a loud and possibly large portion of his base won’t let him cross it. Another segment, including those who are more conventionally Republican, actually like the idea of cutting Dreamers a break. After all, America is the only country most of these folks have ever known, and our tax dollars have already been invested in their education and well-being.

Should Trump have seen this blowback coming? Maybe – he certainly played up the points during his campaign that President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program was reprehensible and that that a new border wall was nonnegotiable.

But as both a candidate and as president, Trump has spun like a top on so many issues it’s hard to think of one where he’s been resolute. And his core supporters haven’t flinched. So why are they flipping out at the newest chapter in the Art of the Deal?

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Some observers will argue that immigration-related issues lie at the heart of the economic nationalism that defines Trumpism and that carried Trump into the Oval Office. In that sense, Trump couldn’t afford to concede anything on the Dreamers without obtaining something major from Democrats in return – to wit, money for the wall.

That’s part of it, no doubt. But another part is the view that’s spread over the past few decades that compromise itself is a sign of weakness. Trump’s deal on the debt ceiling was acceptable to his base because he didn’t give up anything meaningful. The debt ceiling increase, the temporary spending bill, the emergency appropriations for storm victims – those were all going to happen anyway. But the outlines of a DACA deal that emerged Wednesday night seemed like a real compromise, one where both sides gave up something to get something.

It’s worth remembering that Trump took a bit of flak for the debt-ceiling bill from conservatives who thought he caved too quickly to Democrats’ demands. The DACA talks drew a much louder version of that same complaint, this time from Trump’s base.

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After the debt-ceiling deal, some Trump supporters crowed that the president had finally sprung himself from the chains imposed by the congressional GOP, and particularly the ball-and-chain tandem of House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). But Trump’s not in a position to triangulate freely, playing congressional Republicans off of congressional Democrats. Having spent the first months of his tenure playing religiously to his base, alienating much of the rest of the country, he now finds that the support of his base isn’t as unconditional as it seemed.

There are lines he can’t cross, and he just tripped over one of them.

jon.healey@latimes.com

Twitter: @jcahealey

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