Republican Senator James Lankford, who is leading negotiations over a border security bill, is discovering to his great shock that Donald Trump and MAGA Republicans are not operating entirely in good faith. Lankford went on the Sunday shows and appeared to admit that they are trying to kill his bill to deny President Biden a bipartisan victory.
That triggered a flurry of social media excitement. But his appearances revealed something deeper about this whole affair: Trump and MAGA Republicans can’t allow this bill to pass, not just for crass political reasons, but because it might succeed on the substance, denying them an opening to pass hideously onerous restrictions later.
Lankford’s first reveal came on Fox News Sunday, when he was asked why on Earth he’d act on the border if it might help Biden (on Fox, this is not a negative, just a statement of the obvious). Lankford noted that Republicans themselves demanded that funding for Ukraine and Israel be tied to border policy changes, and said he is merely trying to deliver what they asked for.
“Now, it’s interesting, a few months later, when we’re finally getting to the end, they’re like, ‘Just kidding, I actually don’t want a change in law because it’s a presidential election year,’” Lankford said, alluding to the open declaration from some Republicans that any compromise will deny Trump a weapon against Biden.
That alone is revealing enough. But it gets more interesting when viewed alongside what Lankford said on CBS’s Face the Nation. Anchor Margaret Brennan aired video of Trump urging Republicans to sink the deal, declaring: “I’d rather have no bill than a bad bill.”
“I’m looking forward to President Trump having the opportunity to be able to read it, like everybody else is,” Lankford rejoined.
The bill would actually have a big impact—in ways that you’d think Republicans would like. As Lankford noted on both shows, it would toughen the standard to qualify for asylum and provide massive new resources for border cops and for processing asylum-seekers faster, including speeding the removal of those who don’t qualify. It would give presidents an entirely new authority to shut down asylum-seeking when border encounters hit certain thresholds.
These aren’t simply Republican-friendly proposals. Lankford pointed out that many of those are resources and authorities that Trump himself urged Congress to give him as president. If Trump gets elected again, Lankford said, he would enjoy authorities that “he’d actually asked for.” Brennan agreed, noting that on the bill, Trump doesn’t “know what he’s talking about.”
Lankford quickly interjected that he personally hadn’t said this of Trump. But Brennan was correct: Lankford did reveal that on this bill, Trump is indeed full of it.
To see how, ask yourself this: Why would Trump and MAGA oppose granting the president, possibly including Trump himself, all these new resources and authorities?
True, the bill wouldn’t give them everything they want. It wouldn’t gut Biden’s parole programs. But those have little to do with border security in any case: They concern migrants who apply for entry to the United States from abroad, reducing their need to show up at the border (Republicans oppose this because it lets migrants into the country efficiently). The bill wouldn’t eliminate the release of migrants, but that would require enormous spending on detention that Congress will never pass anyway.
Meanwhile, the emerging deal would likely go a substantial way toward mitigating much of what Republicans object to. “From what’s been reported, it would provide significant new resources and unprecedented authorities that Trump and Stephen Miller sought for years,” Tom Jawetz, a former senior Homeland Security lawyer, told me, referring to Trump’s longtime immigration adviser.
Indeed, this is why many on the left will oppose it (for liberals a fairer compromise might pair new restrictions with legalizing Dreamers and expanding legal pathways for entry).
All this gets to the core of the scam that Trump and his allies are running. Their absolute worst outcome isn’t just Biden presiding over a bipartisan deal. It’s that this might end up mitigating some of the very problems Republicans are complaining about.
I think it’s no accident that Trump and MAGA are trying to sink this deal even as Trump and Miller are loudly advertising plans for an extraordinarily cruel and draconian second-term crackdown. This includes the mass removals of millions of undocumented immigrants settled here, commencing on Day One; and dramatically scaled-up “camps” to detain enormous numbers of asylum-seekers, who would be subject to appalling new limits that would go further than the GOP bill does. Trump is openly flaunting this agenda’s white nationalist aspirations.
The spectacle of border disorder along with Congress doing nothing in response is the essential combination that Trump, Miller, and MAGA Republicans need. Images of serious destabilization being met with parliamentary sclerosis might create the opening for them to persuade swing voters—especially those who aren’t ideologically opposed to immigration—to accept maximal ethnonationalist savagery, packaged as “border security,” as the only “solution” that will “work.”
At least that’s the dream that fires up the fevered MAGA imagination. It’s what Trump really means by saying, “I’d rather have no bill than a bad bill.” If a bipartisan deal passes and it persuades swing voters that the border is being stabilized without excessive anti-immigrant cruelty, that opportunity could vanish. This is the darker reason MAGA is trying to tank the deal—and Lankford laid it bare for all to see.