President Trump, cornered, weakened, and apparently unable to get his hands on the usual levers of presidential powers, has adopted pretty much the worst possible strategy for someone trying to wield the power of the most powerful job in the world: He’s shooting the hostages.
Trump can’t seem to get the hard stuff associated with the presidency done. He hasn’t been able to mount a legislative agenda or give federal employees (besides ICE agents and the occasional EPA regulator) the foggiest idea of what he wants them to do. Congress is beyond his control and doesn’t fear him: It slapped him in the face on Russia, and when his allies “burned the ships” to pass a health care bill, his confused conquistadors didn’t make it out.
His remaining political leverage has come largely from the policies left to him as hostages by President Barack Obama: the Paris climate accord, the Iran nuclear deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and, most of all, DACA and the nearly 800,000 sympathetic young Americans it allows to live normal, and sometimes extraordinary, lives.
Trump's decision to simply kill those Obama-era acts, rather than to even attempt to use them as political leverage, helps explain the surprising weakness of his presidency. It's far from the only way he's frittered away his power. But if you are playing a weak political hand, hostages can be a source of enormous power. In the extreme case, it’s why we’re worried about Kim Jong Un. When you threaten to destroy something your political opponents desperately want to preserve, even your enemies will do a deal.
Trump’s former aide Steve Bannon saw this, and as Adrian Carrasquillo and Tarini Parti reported back in March, Bannon — a hard-line nationalist with no particular sympathy for the DREAMers — sought to use them as a bargaining chip. Bannon was telling associates until his firing last month that Trump could have signed off on legal status for DREAMers in exchange for an immigration bill that would have achieved the nationalists’ big policy goals: a smaller and better-educated annual intake of legal immigrants.
This would never have been easy. Grand immigration bargains eluded the last two presidents. But there’s really no sign Trump tried to make that deal, or that he would have known how.
The administration’s allies, who have sued to force a choice on whether or not to defend DACA, ultimately took this choice away from Trump. They have left him with the fairly ludicrous option of suggesting that he, Donald Trump, is simply too wedded to constitutional tradition to allow an executive order to reach into Congress’s role of setting immigration policy.
Now, if Trump kills DACA to please his base he’ll be getting the worst of both political worlds. He’ll inflict real pain on hundreds of thousands of people to reassure his 30-some percent that he’s with them. And politically speaking, he’ll have given up a bargaining chip for nothing, and spent away a bit more of his political capital. That's not strategy, it's a panicked move in a corner.
The power politics of this move would be hard to fathom. DACA recipients, their allies, and Americans who see their sympathetic stories across media will blame Trump for their suffering. (Trump will blame Congress.) If Congress manages to restore their status, it will be a deal made on Capitol Hill, with the president a sulking bystander. Power in Washington accumulates when you’re relevant; it slips away when you’re on the sideline.
But that move would be in line with the general trajectory of his presidency, which is aimed at finding the exact minimum of power an American president can exert. (Still a lot!)
Hostage-takers keep hostages alive in order to protect themselves, to get what they want out of a situation that has clearly gone rather wrong. They sometimes shoot them for the same reason Trump appears to be thinking about ending DACA: attention. Again and again, he’s faced choices between attention and power, between the reality show narrative and the complex realities of governance. He’s chosen attention every time, and there’s little reason to think that’s about to change.
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Ben Smith is the editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed and is based in New York.
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