WASHINGTON — Meet President Donald Trump's new best friends. He calls them "Chuck and Nancy," not Senate Minority Leader Schumer or House Minority Leader Pelosi.
He met with them Wednesday morning, along with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan. The sit-down ended with Trump breezing past the GOP's wish list and giving Democrats what they wanted, a three-month extension of government funding to avoid a shutdown, an increase in the debt ceiling and aid for victims of Hurricane Harvey.
Later that afternoon, appearing before supporters in North Dakota, Trump crooned about their "great bipartisan meeting."
Sure, his administration just rescinded the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, which gave temporary work permits and deportation protections to undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children. Still, he told reporters, "Chuck and Nancy would like to see something happen" to restore the policy, "and so do I."
Then Thursday morning, at Pelosi's request, Trump posted a reassuring tweet, "For all of those (DACA) that are concerned about your status during the 6 month period, you have nothing to worry about — No action!"
Is this bold bipartisanship? Shrewd deal-making? A tantrum aimed at GOP leaders who failed to deliver on a health care bill? Or a savvy way to instill fear among recalcitrant Republicans? Once again, Washington insiders found themselves trying to figure out why Trump did what he did — and who will bear the burden he tossed onto others' backs.
Outside the beltway, Trump's decision seems pretty straightforward. After critics have spent most of 2017 harping on the Republicans' failure to reach across the aisle, Trump gave Democrats what they wanted at a time when Congress needed to raise the debt ceiling to avoid financial default, needed to pass spending legislation to prevent a government shutdown and needed to provide financial aid to areas hit hard by natural disaster.
Short term, it's a winner for Trump — and Democrats.
Ryan and McConnell had wanted an 18-month extension of the government's borrowing limit, which they shortened to six months when Pelosi and Schumer stood their ground. Both leaders have said they will support the resulting measure, which sailed through the Senate on Thursday.
At a Thursday press conference, Pelosi said that an 18-month window would have destroyed "any negotiating leverage that we have." The Wednesday deal "frankly strengthened our hand for three months."
"I actually think it's great," gushed Democratic strategist Maria Cardona. "I think this president got rolled, and he probably doesn't know it yet. I think the Democrats got leverage in a situation when they probably shouldn't have any. The Republicans have the Senate, White House and the House. What's left for Democratic leaders is to decide what we want to get in December."
Inside the GOP conference, dissent bubbles. Seventeen GOP senators voted against the debt/ disaster/spending bill on Thursday. When the House votes on the measure, probably Friday, leadership expects to lose many more Republican votes.
"Trump isn't thinking about long-term strategy," said a GOP strategist with ties to the White House. "All he wants are wins right now in order to bolster his image as a deal-maker since there haven't been any legislative victories besides the Gorsuch confirmation. He's like a political day trader that just cares about instant gratification rather than three months down the road. Republicans are adjusting too slowly to this new way of governing and if they aren't careful, Trump will bulldoze right over them to get to a win."
Before the year is out, Democrats likely will have a new notch in their belts, something even hardcore conservative Republicans acknowledge.
"I suspect this will go like it normally goes," Andy Roth of the fiscally conservative Club for Growth said of the expected vote Friday in the House. "Most Democrats will support this, and most moderate Republicans will support it. And then rank-and-file Republicans who like to give lip service to conservatism and the true conservatives will oppose it."
It doesn't seem to matter that dancing with Democrats could move Trump to the center. Or that Trump might decide he likes working with a party that can deliver votes.
And not just on DACA. Trump flirted this week with the idea of ditching the grueling ritual congressional vote to raise the limit on government borrowing. (Congress already authorized the spending that drove up debt, so why put Congress through all the drama of voting to pay the bills?) "That's a crazy idea," Roth said, one that would "set Trump's voter base on fire."
With Trump you never can tell. If he continues to barter with Democrats, Trump could become the bipartisan deal-maker who creates a bridge to the middle.