Back in 2015, before the presidential primaries began, a voter asked candidate Donald Trump if he believed compromise should be part of politics.
“Compromise is not a bad word to me,” Trump answered. “But if you are going to compromise, ask for about three times more than you want. You understand? So when you compromise, you get what you want.”
Now, President Trump is engaged in delicate negotiations with Congress over immigration. And he has come up with a deal. On one hand, he’s making a big offer to Democrats: legal status for 1.8 million people in the country illegally, which is more than the 800,000 or so covered by President Obama’s old Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA — plus a path to citizenship for all of them.
In return, Trump is making a big ask: a fully funded border wall, strong limits on chain migration and an end to the visa lottery.
The questions for Democrats: Is Trump asking for three times more than he wants? Can his position be negotiated down? Or is this the deal they should take?
The president’s critics on both right and left are “wrong in viewing this as an opening bid,” said a source familiar with White House discussions. “The president views this as a best and final offer.”
We’ll see if that remains the case.
What’s stunning about the negotiations is how much Trump has expanded their scope. Originally, some Democrats thought they could win a clean legalization for DACA recipients — in other words, for the president to just give Democrats what they wanted and be done with it.
But Trump and his Republican allies saw an opportunity to go big, moving beyond even the immigration positions he advocated most frequently in the campaign.
In the presidential race, Trump talked about “extreme vetting” of people coming from terror-plagued countries. He talked about protecting the wages of American citizens. He talked about cracking down on sanctuary cities. But more than anything, Trump talked about building a wall along roughly 1,000 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border.
The wall was a staple of Trump’s campaign speeches. It was the backbone of his pledge to protect Americans from the threats posed by illegal immigration — from crime, drugs, low-wage job competition. And it remains the backbone of his current immigration proposal.
At the same time, issues of legal immigration — specifically chain migration and the visa lottery — played far smaller roles in the campaign.
For example, in Trump’s much-discussed August 31, 2016 policy speech in Phoenix, he laid out 10 immigration priorities for his administration. Number one was the wall. Number two was an end to the catch-and-release policy. Number three was zero tolerance for criminal aliens. After that came sanctuary cities, an entry-exit visa tracking system and more.
Reforming legal immigration was number 10, at the bottom of Trump’s list. He didn’t talk much about it, at least not in any detail. Mostly, Trump made just a brief nod to legal immigration, saying he wanted to include a “big, fat, beautiful door” in the border wall through which legal immigrants would be welcomed.
But now, limiting chain migration and ending the visa lottery are key parts of the Trump immigration package. And the president has leverage; Democrats desperately want DACA legalization. They’re prepared to give something away to get it.
In addition, some polls suggest Trump’s positions — making immigration more merit-based and doing away with the visa lottery — enjoy majority support.
By making a maximalist offer, Trump has things to give away in negotiation. In the end, there is probably just one thing he absolutely has to have, and that is the thing he promised voters over and over and over again: the wall.
The White House has come up with a demand for $25 billion for the wall — enough to cover its construction and various support systems. And not some sort of Washington make-believe $25 billion. Trump wants Congress to put the money in a trust fund that the president could use to pay for building the wall. (That doesn’t mean opponents won’t try to stop the project by other means, like a barrage of lawsuits, but for the White House, it’s first things first.)
It’s important to say that everything could still fall apart, but at the moment, Trump’s goal is within reach. Democrats acknowledge that they’re going to have to give something big to get Trump’s equally big offer on DACA legalization.
In the end, a Trump victory on the wall would be absolutely remarkable. Just think back to all those Democrats and activists and other Trump opponents who virtually pledged to throw their bodies in front of any effort to build a wall. The ones who pledged that Congress would never approve a wall. That it would never, ever, ever be built.
Now, the president might be on the verge of proving them wrong. How? It’s simple. You just ask for about three times more than you want, so when you compromise, you get what you want.
Byron York is chief political correspondent for The Washington Examiner.