‘Step right, step left’: mercurial Trump leaves supporters reeling

As Trump turned to Democrats for a second time in two weeks, Republicans were left stunned while his base howled in anger. What is his strategy?

“He likes us,” Chuck Schumer said. “He likes me, anyway.”

The Democratic minority leader, talking with glee to his Republican counterpart Mitch McConnell, was caught by a live microphone on the Senate floor. Schumer continued: “Here’s what I told him: I said, ‘Mr President, you’re much better off if you can sometimes step right and sometimes step left. If you have to step just in one direction, you’re boxed.’ He gets that.”

The snatch of conversation came after a White House dinner of honey sesame crispy beef and chocolate cream pie to which McConnell was pointedly not invited. Instead Schumer, along with House counterpart Nancy Pelosi, enjoyed red and white wine, while the teetotal president sipped Coke. They emerged claiming to have struck a deal to protect young undocumented migrants brought to the US as children.

As Trump turned to Democrats for a second time in two weeks, Republicans on Capitol Hill were left wondering whether they had lost sway with the president despite having control of both chambers and a mounting legislative agenda. There was also a furious backlash from some in the Trump base, including a photo of a “Make America great again” hat going up in flames on the rightwing website Breitbart. But the unorthodox manoeuvre also raised questions over how far Democrats should go to court him without alienating their own grassroots. What remained unclear was Trump’s strategy – if he has one.

His motives for “step right, step left” appear various. He has fallen out with the leaders of his own party, McConnell and House speaker Paul Ryan, especially after their failure to to pass healthcare legislation. He instinctively gravitates towards Schumer, a fellow New Yorker, and towards pragmatic deal-making rather than ideology.

Not least of all, he is basking in positive media coverage after months of being hammered. Last week, after working with Schumer and Pelosi on a three-month extension for the national debt ceiling, he called Schumer, who recounted to the New York Times: “He said, ‘This was so great!’ Here’s what he said: ‘Do you watch Fox News?’ I said, ‘Not really.’ ‘They’re praising you!’ Meaning me. But he said, ‘And your stations’ – I guess meaning MSNBC and CNN – ‘are praising me! This is great!’”

Trump’s addiction to the cable TV news channels seems intact, but he is spending less time in the rightwing fever swamps of the internet, according to the website Axios. John Kelly, the chief of staff, has reportedly restricted the number of articles that staff print out from sites such as Breitbart and bring to his attention.

“The dramatically different information Trump receives daily under chief of staff John Kelly is an under-looked factor in Trump’s decision to double down on his partnership with the Democratic leaders,” Axios said.

This, along with the replacement of press secretary Sean Spicer by the less gaffe-prone Sarah Sanders, and the ousting of bomb-throwers Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka, have given some hope that the administration is finally professionalising and steering towards a middle course.

But even as political pundits pondered the dawn of a new era and talked of a “pivot” or “bipartisan” president, Trump’s reliably twitchy thumbs signalled there was no meaningful shift in behavior on the horizon.

In a characteristic early morning tweet-storm, Trump suggested on Friday that the perpetrators behind the Parsons Green terrorist attack were already “in the sights” of Scotland Yard – prompting a rare rebuke from British prime minister Theresa May.

Trump also seized on the moment to reaffirm the need for his travel ban against certain Muslim-majority countries, arguing it should be “far larger, tougher and more specific”, while adding: “but stupidly, that would not be politically correct!”

His tone was equally inconsistent while touring parts of Florida on Thursday left devastated by Hurricane Irma.

In one moment, he was Trump the deal-maker, relishing in several opportunities to speak to reporters about his negations with Democrats. But at another turn, when asked about a meeting he held with Tim Scott, the Senate’s only black Republican, Trump once again declared that “both sides” were to blame for the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia.

While Schumer and Pelosi spent the immediate moments following their dinner with Trump crafting a statement about a potential deal on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (Daca), the president was by contrast more preoccupied with tweeting about “Crooked Hillary Clinton”. He also made a series of comments and tweets that sowed confusion over what had been agreed.

The shifting sands leave mainstream Republicans, hardline Trump supporters and Democrats all scrambling to find their footing. McConnell and Ryan have tried to be circumspect despite what might be seen as public humiliation. The House speaker said pointedly: “I think the president understands that he has to work with the congressional majorities to get any kind of legislative solution.”

Congressman Pete Sessions, a Republican from Texas and the chair of the rules committee, told reporters: “Typically a president of our party would work with our party on a proposal that we would be supportive of and so we’re learning now how he wants to operate. As the country adapts itself to Mr Trump’s leadership we’re learning more about what that leadership means.”

Other conservatives were more outspoken. Straight after Wednesday’s dinner, Iowa congressman Steve King tweeted: “Trump base is blown up, destroyed, irreparable, and disillusioned beyond repair. No promise is credible.” The conservative commentator Ann Coulter tweeted: “At this point, who DOESN’T want Trump impeached?” And Breitbart, run by Trump’s former chief strategist Bannon, ran the headline “Amnesty Don”.

But the base is no monolith. Fox News and conservative broadcaster Rush Limbaugh praised Trump for his negotiating nous. The crowds who pour into his raucous rallies are unlikely to lose faith over horse trading on Capitol Hill, especially with their hostility towards Republican elites.

For Democrats, too, the moment of opportunity is fraught with risks. Trump is seen by many of their supporters as a demagogue, misogynist and white nationalist to be resisted at all costs. He is also notoriously opportunistic, improvisational and mercurial, prone to change like the wind in response to a headline or slight. Some on the left warn that anyone who gets too close to him is likely to be burned.

Norman Solomon, a Bernie Sanders delegate from California to last year’s Democratic national convention, said: “It’s extremely likely that Trump will sucker-punch ‘Chuck and Nancy’ – and it would be surprising if that doesn’t happen fairly soon. Trump is holding on tight to so many odious policies that it’s tempting to rejoice when he decides to loosen his grip on one or another, once in a while. But the problem is not only that Trump is an expert at praising people and then shafting them.”

Solomon, coordinator of the online activist group RootsAction.org, added: “What’s also a huge danger in the current bipartisan foreplay is what could be called ‘the optics’ of Democratic leadership making nice with a symbolic and actual representative of massive greed and oligarchy. If Democrats want to oppose Trump as the heartless corporate monster that he is, then making nice with him in photo ops and boasting that he likes them is not good groundwork for winning working-class votes in the next few years.”

Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill are aware of the limitations posed by working hand-in-hand with Trump.

One Senate Democratic aide, who did not wish to be named, said the goal was to address a set of issues requiring immediate attention – namely the fate of Daca recipients and legislation to stabilize the health insurance markets. With a new deadline of mid-December to fund the government and raise the debt limit, the aide said, Democrats have a limited window to use leverage under Republican control.
Trump’s erratic behavior, the aide cautioned, “makes the price of our cooperation very, very very high”, adding: “I think that you have to weigh what you’re able to achieve.

“It’ll be pretty apparent that he’s not a normal president. But if he’s willing to give you 100% of what you’re asking for, you take it, and then you continue to go after him where he’s wrong.”

Trump’s fluid loyalties have provided fresh fodder to comedians. Columnist Andy Borowitz wrote in the New Yorker: “In his most stunning deal yet with Democratic leaders, Donald Trump agreed on Friday to be impeached by the end of 2017… ‘Chuck and Nancy and I got a deal done on impeachment,’ Trump said. ‘It was a good deal and it was a fast deal.’”