But Republicans who have insisted for years that Trump is no conservative say this turn to the Democrats was entirely predictable.
“I was concerned about things like this, I am concerned about it,” said Brendan Steinhauser, a Texas-based conservative activist, speaking broadly of Trump dealing more closely with Democrats than his own party. “This is where Ted Cruz was right when he said [Trump] was going to cut deals with Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer.”
“For people who are motivated by a certain set of ideas, principles, policies—yes, you’re going to be disappointed by this president again and again,” Steinhauser said.
Indeed, Trump, a former Democratic donor, has never hid the fact that he values making deals more than adhering to any particular ideology. But until recently, Trump’s upending of Republican orthodoxy had often played into the more nationalist, populist vision championed by Bannon, Breitbart and prominent talk radio figures.
To the delight of the burgeoning nationalist wing of the party, Trump’s campaign was centered on a hardline immigration platform, with promises to build a large border wall, have Mexico pay for it, and to deport undocumented immigrants. His dramatic about-face this week—with Pelosi, no less, the ultimate conservative bogeyman—felt like a shocking miscalculation to some of his more ardent backers, if not to his longtime conservative critics.
“If he goes soft on what his supporters believe is the defining issue of our time, I don’t know who’s going to be left to support him,” said one source close to the White House. “The idea that Trump can pivot to the middle and get Democrats across the country to like him—it’s fool’s gold.”
In the past, according to The New York Times, Bannon had described Trump as an “imperfect vessel” for the realignment he was pushing, but one with whom he could work all the same, seeing his candidacy and then White House as the biggest platform yet for those ideals. Now, say some strategists, Schumer appears to see Trump in a similar way, for his own set of policy objectives.
“They both saw in him a vessel to work their viewpoint,” said Scott Jennings, a plugged-in GOP strategist. “For Bannon, he was a vessel, but a vessel to a longer-term political realignment. For Schumer, it’s short-term and transactional. Today, he sees Trump not getting along with Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan, he steps into the breach, understands Trump is driven, to some degree, by a desire for good press. What’s the fastest way to get good press? Align yourself with liberal Democrats. That’s what’s happening.”
Jennings said he didn’t think Schumer was “under any illusions that Trump is going to magically become what is essentially a liberal Democratic president,” pointing in particular to Trump’s position on tax reform.
But he warned Trump not to underestimate the Democrats, even if they are willing to work with him for now: “For whatever happy memories Donald Trump has of dealing with Schumer and Pelosi, if they were to get control of either house of Congress, the subpoenas start flying. If they get control of both of them, articles of impeachment will fly.”
Rick Tyler, a former spokesman for Cruz’s presidential campaign, said there’s nothing wrong with negotiating with Democrats—“so long as they are signing up to you, not you signing up to them. But this appears to be Donald Trump signing up to them.” (His old boss, Cruz, has said it’s “perfectly fine” to meet with Democrats, but has also been skeptical of Democratic interest in broader cooperation with Republicans).
“I went on TV countless times saying Donald Trump is not a Republican, not a conservative, doesn’t share our ideology, we can’t count on him, he’s not been down for the cause, so to speak,” Tyler said. Pointing to Trump’s past donations to Democrats and Trump’s own remarks indicating that he’s a deal-maker above all else, Tyler said: “That should have been a clarion warning for Republicans and conservatives who hold a governing philosophy.”
The conservative base knew all of this during the campaign, however. It didn’t matter then, and there are signs that it ultimately may not matter now, at least in terms of Trump’s standing with them. Interviews with conservative activists across the country this week, as the immigration news played out, revealed that many are much more comfortable criticizing Congress than criticizing the president, and some are inclined to believe that he was forced to deal with Democrats because of intransigent Republican leadership.
“The media is saying he can do nothing right, therefore the base is saying the president can do nothing wrong,” said one former senior campaign adviser, stressing that Trump’s standing with the conservative base remains rock-solid, and that there is a circling-the-wagons effect. “It’s like saying, ‘Look, you want to come at him with everything and the kitchen sink? Well guess what, we’re going to be the wall in front of him.’ They just want him to do his job. It doesn’t even matter if the criticism is actually accurate.”
Meanwhile, Larry Kudlow, a conservative economist and media personality who has informally advised Trump and considers Bannon a friend, pushed back on the idea that Trump is malleable. He pointed to the president’s past writings and books, and said he has consistently maintained much of the philosophy expressed there.
Of course, the most famous of those writings is Trump’s “The Art of the Deal.”
“Trump made a very shrewd move here,” Kudlow said of the dealings with the Democrats. “He changed some of the terms of the trade. That’s what I love about him. He’s the chaos guy.”