‘Amnesty Don’ returns? Trump curiously challenges his conservative base

GOP strategist: ’He runs the risk of the movement passing him by‘ if they feel betrayed

Dreamers and supporters march to the U.S. Capitol on Monday, March 5, 2018, to call on Congress to act to pass the Dream Act. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Dreamers and supporters march to the U.S. Capitol on Monday, March 5, 2018, to call on Congress to act to pass the Dream Act. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted January 23, 2019 at 5:04am

The timing, to say the least, was curious. Even by President Donald Trump’s unpredictable standards.

First, he angered his conservative base with a Saturday pitch to end a partial government shutdown that included temporary protections for the so-called Dreamer population. The next day, the president, once dubbed “Amnesty Don” by a popular far-right news site, made a surprising — even defiant — return.

Republican insiders say Trump is likely aware that large numbers of GOP  voters still support a legislative path to citizenship for the over 700,000 undocumented childhood migrants covered by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. But they also point out that while Trump’s conservative nexus of support continues to stand by him, offering a pathway to citizenship to people in the country illegally could drive away some of those who helped him improbably capture the White House.

“His base will stay with him, and that’s certainly what we’ve continued to see for two years. But whether that continues depends on what he actually does,” said Evan Siegfried, a GOP strategist. “If he campaigns on one thing, then does what every other Washington politician does — which is, he then does the exact opposite on something as big as this — he runs the risk of the movement passing him by and no longer being about Donald Trump.”

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‘A real test’

One Republican pollster, granted anonymity to be candid, noted that White House counselor Kellyanne Conway “has been doing immigration polling for years and knows as well as anyone else where conservatives are on a pathway to citizenship, and we have to assume she’s getting pretty good numbers and advice on this.”

[White House, Dems can’t even agree on status of potential shutdown talks]

“This could be a real test for the president,” the GOP pollster said, referring to any coming pursuit of a path to citizenship for the Dreamers. “He has a group of voters that believes anything he says — but that’s the very group that knows it can kill any immigration reform proposal simply by calling it ‘amnesty.’”

As a 2016 presidential candidate, Trump ran, in large part, on a hard-line immigration platform that included a border wall made of concrete and reinforced steel, as well as calls to find and deport millions in the country illegally. Positioning himself with hard-liners, and the promises he made to conservative voters, partly factored in his decision last year to nix a bipartisan Senate immigration bill.

White House officials appeared rattled Saturday evening after conservative groups wasted little time in blasting Trump’s proposal to get 800,000 furloughed federal workers back on the job amid his bitter fight with Democratic leaders and warnings that the shutdown will further slow an already lagging U.S. economy.

Vice President Mike Pence, in a roundtable session Saturday with a group of reporters after Trump’s remarks, tried to assuage any skeptical and frustrated conservatives.

“There is no amnesty in the president’s proposal. There is no pathway to citizenship in this proposal. It’s three-year relief for [Temporary Protected Status] and DACA,” Pence said.

Feeling the heat?

The president himself appeared to feel the pressure coming from his right flank — the very core supporters he messages to each day and appears to make decisions to please, knowing he has almost no shot at a second term without them again showing up to vote in big numbers next year.

“No, Amnesty is not a part of my offer. It is a 3 year extension of DACA,” Trump tweeted Sunday morning.

The president was referring to his offer to Democrats of three-year extensions of two immigration programs in exchange for his $5.7 billion demand for border wall funding. The border structure is the sticking point in ending the partial shutdown.

But conservative groups and lawmakers didn’t like the temporary protections-for-wall funding trade one bit.

James Carafano, a vice president at The Heritage Foundation, said “including amnesty in the new proposal is not the way to do it,” asserting that “amnesty encourages further illegal immigration, incentivizes the tragedy of human trafficking, and undermines our citizens’ confidence in the rule of law.”

Ann Coulter, a conservative commentator who advocated Trump hold out for wall monies late last month and force a shutdown, fired off a dig on Twitter by comparing Trump to Jeb Bush. The former Florida governor was one of Trump’s 2016 GOP primary foes and ran on a more moderate immigration platform.

“Trump proposes amnesty. We voted for Trump and got Jeb!” she said.

And Iowa Rep. Steve King,who got in hot water recently over what even GOP leaders called racist remarks, had this message for the president who has praised him in the past: “If DACA Amnesty is traded for $5.7 billion(1/5 of a wall), wouldn’t be enough illegals left in America to trade for the remaining 4/5. NO AMNESTY 4 a wall!”

It all harked back to 2017, when the president suggested he could get behind any legislation that offered permanent protections for Dreamers, and the far-right Breitbart News derisively labeled him “Amnesty Don.”

(Screenshot)
(Screenshot)

Trump has repeatedly responded to pressure from the most conservative part of his party, making the second part of his Sunday morning tweet so curious.

[ANALYSIS: White House flashes urgency on shutdown — but actual goal is murky]

“Amnesty will be used only on a much bigger deal,” he wrote, “whether on immigration or something else.”

Looking ahead

The GOP pollster suggested Trump’s surprise amnesty embrace is reflective of polling that indicates any dip among his conservative base due to the partial shutdown is met with signs of rebounding as he turns the situation into a political street fight with Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a top conservative foil.

“They like when he’s fighting. They like his persona,” the pollster said. “And it was interesting that Mike Huckabee, a White House ally and father of Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, went after Coulter.”

“Ann Coulter, if she’s got the way to get it done, then let her run for office,” the former Arkansas governor said in a Monday radio interview. “She’s never done that.”

Siegfried, the GOP strategist, sees that as “revealing fissures within the movement” between a Republican president “who is trying some things to get Democrats to come to the negotiating table and a group of conservatives that will try to slap the ‘amnesty’ tag on anything so they can ensure it never gets to his desk.”

Any comprehensive immigration measure that Trump and lawmakers might pursue would need some Democratic support. But few seemed to think Trump floating a path to citizenship means he would hold that stance once talks began.

“I don’t take him on his word on anything,” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand said Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”

“If he really cares about this, he would open up the government, stop the 800,000 people that didn’t get a paycheck last week, stop their suffering,” the New York Democrat said. “Some people can’t pay for medicines, food, heat, mortgages, rents. It just shows a callousness that is unacceptable.”