Comment by Greg Sargent

The forces arrayed behind President Donald Trump in the US government shutdown fight are now sending out decidedly conflicting signals.

Some want Trump to dig in more firmly behind the xenophobic nationalism symbolised by his wall, as if he can break the Democrats' will through sheer force of intractable anti-immigrant recalcitrance.

Others are urging him to reach out to Democrats with concessions designed to accommodate their desire for humane immigration solutions.

Advertisement

This gives Democrats an opening to put forth their own proactive immigration agenda in the days and weeks ahead - to further divide the opposition, yes, but more to the point because it's the right thing to do from a good governing standpoint.

The New York Times has now confirmed that the White House deliberately ensured that poison pills were inserted into the Senate GOP bill to reopen the government.

As the Times reports, White House officials "conceded privately" that they "tacked on controversial proposals anathema to Democrats that would block many migrants from seeking asylum."

This week, the Senate will vote on that bill, which reflects the Trump proposal to reopen the government. Trump pretends it's a compromise. In reality it is larded up with cruel provisions hatched from Stephen Miller's nationalist fever dreams.

It would further restrict asylum seeking in multiple ways. It offers one-time legislative relief to 700,000 young immigrants brought here illegally as children - aka "dreamers" - but only in a manner that codifies relief that has already been granted and that Trump is trying to take away, and appears to create new obstacles for them to apply.

At the same time, however, Axios reports that some in Trump's orbit, including son-in-law Jared Kushner, want him to offer a path to getting green cards to those 700,000 dreamers. But some on the right are arguing against this. Why? As one GOP senator puts it: "If you throw green cards onto the table, this whole coalition will fall over on the right."

Trump, this senator says, cannot afford to "lose" the likes of Sean Hannity.

In other words, some around Trump recognise that making genuine concessions to Democrats actually would provide a way out of this standoff. But doing this risks splitting off pro-Trump forces on the right.

Nancy Pelosi postpones Donald Trump's State of the Union address until the government is fully reopened. Photo / AP
Nancy Pelosi postpones Donald Trump's State of the Union address until the government is fully reopened. Photo / AP

All this comes as a new CBS News poll finds that 71 per cent of Americans overall, including 71 per cent of independents and even 43 per cent of Republicans, say the wall is not worth shutting down the government over. Only 28 per cent say it's worth the shutdown. Trump's approval is mired at 36 per cent. Large majorities - again, including independents - say the border can be secured without the wall.

Trump's public position is weakening. The restrictionist right wing he's appeasing - the one that Trump and Miller played to by salting the "compromise" with poison pills, the one that would revolt if Trump made actual concessions to Democrats - is increasingly isolated.

Here's what Democrats can do now

This week, the Senate will vote on the Trump sham compromise and on a Democratic proposal to reopen the government without wall funding. Both will almost certainly fail. But some in Congress believe that once this happens, it will increase pressure for a renewed compromise push.

House Democrats can proactively take control of that coming debate. They can initiate oversight hearings on what really went into Trump's family separations policies. Remember, those were Trump's response to the crisis created by the crush of asylum-seeking migrants (they were meant as deterrence, and failed). This would highlight the naked cruelty, ineffectiveness, and deeply misguided worldview driving his immigration agenda.

Hearings could focus more broadly on the true causes and solutions to the current migrant crisis at the border, and on what to do to prevent more migrant children from dying.

Trump keeps lurching between spewing endless lies to paint asylum-seeking migrants as menacing invaders, and pretending to care about their humanitarian plight. We cannot have a debate in an environment that is so asymmetrically saturated by Trumpian disinformation, bad faith, and hate.

Democrats can use hearings to restore much needed facts to the discussion, ones focused on the need to invest more money in unclogging court backlogs and in beefing up border infrastructure and treatment options for what really is a new kind of immigration, and on the need for regional solutions to the root causes of migration surges.

Donald Trump reacts as he is told by a reporter that Nancy Pelosi says he won't be able to make his speech until after the government is reopened. Photo / AP
Donald Trump reacts as he is told by a reporter that Nancy Pelosi says he won't be able to make his speech until after the government is reopened. Photo / AP

"I think we have to do that, and I think we will," Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., said speaking about such hearings. Connolly noted that multiple committees could launch a broad look at everything from what analyses went into Trump's demand for 234 miles of wall, to 21st century ways of fortifying security at ports of entry, to what is actually needed to relieve the humanitarian plight of migrants.

"Let's get some factual data about what's happening at the southern border," Connolly said, whether in the "post mortem of the shutdown, or during the shutdown" if necessary.

Following that, House Democrats could hold votes on bills pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into updating the border to better handle the new humanitarian challenges (Trump's own border officials want such spending). They could vote on permanent protections for the dreamers. They could package those things with the US$1.3 billion for border security they've already offered Trump.

Taking back the debate from Trump

All this would place Democrats firmly in favour of reopening the government - which they've already passed bills doing - while also securing the border, addressing the plight of migrants in a truly humane way that is not grounded in fantasies and lies about them, and offering a real permanent solution for the dreamers.

"Work should begin in Congress now to develop plans to address the major border and immigration challenges which remain unaddressed," Democratic strategist Simon Rosenberg emails.

"It's long past time for Democrats to wrest control of the debate from the president and his extremist allies."

This would manoeuvre Trump into the position of turning down all these solutions - that is, holding them hostage - for his wall, which only a shrinking minority wants, and which we do not need.

Alternatively, it points a way towards a deal - one that would address some of these terrible humanitarian problems in exchange for more border security money - that both sides could conceivably accept. Provided that there's some point at which Trump is willing to "lose" Hannity.