The Art of the Deal with Democrats

President Trump is often, inaccurately, called unpredictable. Most of what he’s done since taking office should have come as no surprise to anyone who closely watched his campaign.

Wednesday, however, he really did do something no one had predicted, and in doing so, he produced what may prove to have been a milestone in his presidency.

Trump cut a deal on a federal spending bill with Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer of New York and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco — “Chuck and Nancy,” he called them. That did more than just upend the politics of Capitol Hill. Whether he meant it as a fundamental change in his approach or just the expression of a passing whim, it set in motion a chain of events that will be difficult to reverse.


Good afternoon, I’m David Lauter, Washington bureau chief. Welcome to the Friday edition of our Essential Politics newsletter, in which we look at the events of the week in Washington and elsewhere in national politics and highlight some particularly insightful stories.


The deal with Schumer and Pelosi might have seemed a small matter: Trump agreed with the Democrats that a measure to provide funds for federal agencies and extend the government’s ability to borrow money should run until early December, not longer, as Republican leaders wanted. But as Noah Bierman, Brian Bennett and Lisa Mascaro wrote, the implications go far beyond the deadlines.

Since they gained control of Congress, Republicans have had huge trouble passing legislation to pay the government’s bills. That’s because the party’s large conservative bloc opposes the current level of government spending but has never been able to get support in Congress — or in the wider population — to significantly reduce it.

Conservatives have responded by refusing to vote for must-pass spending measures, making the Republican leadership rely on Democratic votes to keep the government functioning.

So every time there’s a spending vote, Republicans split, and Democrats have leverage to extract concessions. House Speaker Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky wanted to minimize that leverage by extending current spending deadlines as long as possible. Their initial offer in a White House meeting Wednesday was 18 months, which would have taken spending issues off the agenda until after the midterm elections.

Schumer and Pelosi rejected that idea. They rejected a subsequent offer of a six-month extension. They offered a three-month deal. Republicans objected. So did Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin. Trump cut him off in mid-sentence, according to participants in the meeting and sided with the Democrats.

The agreement for a three-month extension, which then passed the Senate with 17 Republicans voting no, guarantees repeated spending votes between now and the midterm, each of which will force Republican lawmakers to cast uncomfortable votes, and each of which will require Republican concessions to the Democratic minority. All of those concessions inevitably will anger many Republican voters.

On Friday, the measure passed the House, with 90 Republicans in opposition. In both chambers, more Democrats voted for the measure than Republicans, an indication of the intra-party divisions ahead.

Earlier Friday morning, Trump took another step likely to upset conservatives, sending out three tweets that implied — but stopped just short of saying outright — that the time had come to give up on repealing Obamacare.

The news of the deal between Trump and the Democratic leaders stunned Republican lawmakers. “I will tell you that I gasped when I heard it,” Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), a Trump ally, said to reporters on Air Force One after Wednesday’s announcement as Trump visited his state to pitch his tax reform ideas.

Sam Nunberg, a former Trump strategist, told our reporters that the Democratic leaders had “played the president.”

“Pelosi and Schumer will work hand in hand with the president on one action item: impeaching him,” he said. “That is it.”

Why’d he do it? Was this a matter of temporary pique or a larger breach with Republicans, as Cathy Decker, Bierman and Bennett put it?

Any answer needs to take into account Trump’s bias toward action over ideology. He likes signing bills into law, and he’s made it clear that he doesn’t much care what’s in them. He’s repeatedly been frustrated by the inability of Ryan and McConnell to deliver results. Schumer and Pelosi, while in the minority, have the power to deliver.


What will Schumer and Pelosi get in return?

On Thursday, Schumer signaled one priority: joining other members of the New York and New Jersey congressional delegations to meet with Trump to talk about an enormous, expensive regional infrastructure project — a new rail tunnel under the Hudson River. That’s been a top issue for Schumer for years.

Pelosi signaled another top priority, asking Trump to send a message on Twitter reassuring young illegal immigrants who currently benefit from the DACA program that they won’t be subject to deportation over the next six months. Trump, who notably has ignored suggestions from Republican leaders about his social media habits, quickly agreed.

Immigration hard-liners in the administration, led by Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions, maneuvered for months to get Trump to live up to his campaign pledge to abolish Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the program set up by President Obama that shields from deportation the so-called Dreamers, young immigrants who came to the U.S. illegally as children, and allows them to work here legally. Trump repeatedly expressed sympathy with the Dreamers and made clear his reluctance to end DACA.

On Tuesday, the hard-liners thought they had finally won, as Sessions announced that the administration would phase out DACA, giving Congress six months to resolve the fate of the Dreamers. Sessions and White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders spoke critically of the nearly 800,000 young immigrants, saying they were taking jobs away from other young Americans — a statement that most economists consider to be largely nonsensical — and suggesting that Congress would have to pass a major immigration overhaul with significant conservative policies to win Trump’s signature.

The Times closely tracked the reaction and highlighted the personal stories of Dreamers feeling left in limbo.

The next day, Trump undercut them completely, telling reporters that although he agreed DACA could not continue as a unilateral executive action, he wanted Congress to pass a bill to permanently legalize the status of DACA recipients. All he needed in return was something more for border security, he said. His agreement to send the tweet Pelosi asked for highlighted his position.

Even before those latest moves, Trump’s decision to phase out DACA guaranteed that Republicans would face a divisive fight over immigrants, as Decker wrote. Now, there’s a significant chance that Trump will end up signing into law a bill to legalize the status of some 800,000 Dreamers. A revised DREAM Act still faces many hurdles in Congress, but in one of the great ironies of the Trump era, there’s a significant chance that the president elected on the most anti-immigration platform since Calvin Coolidge could end up signing into law the most far-reaching amnesty measure since Ronald Reagan in 1986.

In the meantime, the phaseout of DACA is facing legal challenges, as David Savage wrote. And Dreamers face a tight deadline to renew their DACA permits, as Joe Tanfani wrote in a Q&A about what happens next with the DACA program.


The decision to phase out DACA could have a major effect on who controls the House in 2018, especially in California and other states with large Latino populations.

We’ll have more on the vulnerable California Republicans next week. Subscribers to this newsletter will get to see our new project on the midterm elections before anyone else.

All the more reason that if you like this newsletter, tell your friends to sign up.


Bierman and Bennett talked with Steve Bannon, Trump’s recently dismissed strategist. Bannon was among the architects of Trump’s declaration that he would turn the GOP into the party ‘of the American worker.’ How’s that going?

Donald Trump Jr. has sharply changed his story about why he met with a Russian lawyer last summer, David Cloud wrote. Originally, the president’s eldest son put out a statement, drafted in part by the president, which said the meeting was mostly about Russian adoptions. Now, in testimony to the Senate, he admits that he wanted to see derogatory information the Russians said they had about Hillary Clinton.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has launched a formal review of federal guidelines for handling campus sexual assaults, as Lauren Rosenblatt wrote.

The effort by Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the leaders of the Senate Health Committee, to write bipartisan healthcare legislation is well underway. The committee held its first hearings this week, in which state insurance regulators urged Congress to act quickly, Noam Levey wrote. As Levey also wrote, several states offer a more bipartisan model for healthcare reforms, which many in Congress are looking at.

Trump’s lawyers urged the Supreme Court to rule for a Colorado cake-maker who turned away a gay couple, taking sides with religious conservatives and against gay rights activists in what may be the high court’s biggest case of the term, which begins next month, David Savage wrote.

In a federal appeals court, the administration lost another case involving its travel ban, as Maura Dolan and Jaweed Kaleem wrote.

Bribes or just gifts between pals? That’s the question as the trial of Sen. Robert Menendez begins, Joe Tanfani wrote. It’s the first trial of a sitting senator in a decade and will provide a key test of the federal bribery law, which the Supreme Court narrowed last year.


Did the Homeland Security Department ignore a potential breakthrough in efforts to block bioterrorism? That’s the allegation at the heart of a case that will go to trial this month. David Willman explored the issue.


Twitter has long been Trump’s favored means of pushing his message. We’re compiling all of Trump’s tweets. It’s a great resource. Take a look.


That wraps up this week. My colleague Christina Bellantoni will be back Monday with the weekday edition of Essential Politics. Until then, keep track of all the developments in national politics and the Trump administration with our Essential Washington blog, at our Politics page and on Twitter @latimespolitics.

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