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What Is Chuck Schumer Thinking?

The Democrat keeps trying to make deals with Donald Trump—even if it might mean funding the president's odious border wall.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

When the 116th Congress begins in just over a month, President Donald Trump’s dream of a wall on the U.S.-Mexican border will be all but dead. Massive gains in the midterm elections will give Democrats a sizable majority in the House of Representatives and the ability to stymie funding for an expensive, impractical, and offensive symbol of xenophobia and nativism.

But first, we have to get through yet another government funding fight. Congress has nine days to pass seven bills to fund a number of government agencies, including the Departments of Homeland Security and Defense. But while both Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Speaker Paul Ryan have been loathe to rattle sabers, Trump is making their lives difficult, threatening to veto any spending bill that doesn’t contain funding for a border wall.

There is some urgency, to be sure. Trump has failed to deliver on many of his campaign promises, despite presiding over a unified government. With time running out—and with no campaign promise more important than the border wall—the president is itching for a fight.

This puts Senate Democrats, led by Chuck Schumer of New York, in an interesting position, given that some Democratic votes are required to pass a funding bill in the Senate. And Schumer, to the ire of many progressives, has shown a willingness to make a deal, presumably in exchange for legal protections for Dreamers, the group of undocumented immigrants who came to America as children and are protected under the DREAM Act, which Trump rescinded last fall. But attempting to negotiate with Trump is a profoundly risky strategy, especially given Trump’s history of hostage-taking and bad-faith dealing. It’s also one that should raise concerns about Schumer’s leadership as we head into the second half of Trump’s first term.

Asked on Tuesday about the funding for a wall, Schumer was adamant that the $1.6 billion that had already been allocated for fencing and other security measures was sufficient. Still, he said he was open to negotiating that number, just not in public.

While a fully-funded wall would cost (at least) an estimated $21.6 billion, Republican Senator Richard Shelby, who chairs the Appropriations Committee, told reporters that $5 billion—the figure currently in one of the House’s spending bills—is a “red line” for Trump. Democrats, meanwhile, have chafed at spending any money on a wall. (There’s a reason why Schumer insists that the funding is going for “fencing.”) Schumer’s deputy, Minority Whip Dick Durbin, has already come out against the $5 billion figure, while Schumer himself has noted that the administration has yet to spend the $1.3 billion for border security allocated in the previous year’s budget.

The wall has always been an odious idea, but it is especially offensive coming only days after Border Patrol officials fired tear gas into a crowd of Central American migrants, including young children, over the weekend. But Schumer hasn’t let Trump’s general awfulness stop him in the past, even though he has gotten little to nothing in return.

There is an element of deja vu to this crisis, after all. It was just last year that Trump threatened to shut down the government over wall funding. Then, Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi thought that they had gotten the upper hand on the president in budget negotiations—and had secured legal protections for Dreamers—only for the president to pull the rug out from under them. After shutting down the government for three days, Democrats backed away from their promise to protect the Dreamers, voting to reopen the government with little to show for their efforts.

Schumer may think he is now in a better position, with Democrats prepared to take over the House. A divided Congress will make further funding for a wall very difficult, if not impossible. This may be Trump’s last chance. Schumer, ever the dealmaker, sees this as leverage to protect the Dreamers from deportation and to perhaps win other concessions. By suggesting he was open to more wall funding, he was communicating that he was amenable to a deal.

But when asked about this possibility, Trump suggested he was not willing to consider anything until the Supreme Court makes a decision on the Dreamers’ fate. The Court is currently reviewing the legality of his decision to end DACA, the executive order that provided legal protections to the Dreamers. “Well I think DACA is gonna be much more interesting to talk about when we go to the Supreme Court,” he told Politico. “If the Supreme Court doesn’t allow DACA, we will settle every single issue we have.” Trump then went on to blame the breakdown of previous immigration discussions on Schumer and the Democrats.

As New York’s Eric Levitz has pointed out, Trump is essentially saying “that the Dreamers … are his hostages—and he doesn’t want to negotiate over their fates until the Supreme Court lets him put loaded gun to their heads.” In other words, Schumer might be flirting with the idea of a deal, but Trump thinks that the Dreamers are off the table.

It’s possible that Schumer believes that his overtures to Trump will insulate his party from blame should the government shut down. He may also be trying to rebut Trump’s claim that Democrats are for open borders; on Tuesday he pumped his fist while saying, “We’re for border security.”

But when it comes to the issue of immigration, Trump is only interested in using the fate of Dreamers to negotiate stringent immigration reforms and more wall funding than Democrats are likely to give him.

Given all this, it’s troubling that Schumer is so willing to negotiate with Trump. Heading into 2020, Democrats will have considerable leverage in the form of a sizable House majority and the subpoena powers that come with it. They will be able to block funding for wasteful and offensive projects like a border wall. There’s no reason, right now, to work with Trump on anything—and particularly not on a campaign promise that is so antithetical to what Democrats ostensibly stand for.