Why you should care
Because the president could be signaling a shift toward party independence.
There probably isn’t much Kiefer Sutherland and Donald Trump have in common. But on Wednesday, Trump seemed to channel the Canadian actor’s portrayal of an Independent Party president flirting with both Republicans and Democrats in the political drama Designated Survivor. “Did I hear the word ‘bipartisan’?” Trump asked, pointing to his ear with a grin. The occasion? His endorsement of the First Step Act, a wide-ranging criminal justice reform bill backed by cost-conscious conservatives and civil-rights-minded liberals alike.
Never mind that Trump previously advocated a tough-on-crime approach and had to be convinced by his son-in-law to support the bill. His quip came amid a week showcasing the U.S. president’s oscillating personality, with him reportedly brooding, skipping a rainy World War I commemoration in Paris and declining to visit Arlington Cemetery on Veterans Day. Yet his sudden enthusiasm and victory lap on justice reform highlights one consistency: Trump loves wins. Big ones, small ones, perceived or tangible ones — and he is nowhere near getting sick of them. And that love of victory is revealing another aspect of Trump’s post-election personality: one open to playing both sides of the aisle. If nothing else, this bill proves Trump’s mind can be changed.
Remember, Trump was an unlikely advocate for a more merciful justice system. After all, he initially nominated the famously punitive Jeff Sessions as attorney general and praised Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte for a drugs crackdown that has included rampant extrajudicial executions. Trump’s tough-on-crime rhetoric during the presidential primary season helped allies like David Perdue of Georgia and Tom Cotton of Arkansas scuttle another bipartisan reform bill in 2016, an effort finally killed off completely once Trump became president-elect.
But Trump’s views are fungible, as evidenced by the First Step Act, and it’s worth analyzing how they changed.
First, the president listens to those closest to him. In this case, it was Jared Kushner, but in the past, it’s been others, such as Kim Kardashian, who convinced Trump to pardon Alice Marie Johnson, a woman who served more than two decades for a first-time drug offense. Second, he responds to broad coalitions that apply pressure. While every president likes to be liked, Trump is even more attuned to his press coverage than most. When he finds an issue that gets him applause, he relentlessly sticks with it — as he has with his focus on opioid addiction and tackling drug prices with Big Pharma. Finally, his aforementioned love for winning shouldn’t be underestimated.
All those traits were present when Trump gave Democrats a surprising boon in the high-pressure budget negotiations in September of 2017. Privately meeting with Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi amid a looming shutdown and public calls for disaster relief, Trump handed them major concessions, including funds to treat hurricane zones, without forcing them to defund Planned Parenthood or finance his border wall. While Republican leadership was shocked, Trump later “raved about the positive news coverage [the deal] had received” in calls to Schumer and Pelosi, according to a report by Politico at the time.
These instances make it easier to take Trump seriously when he signals his willingness to work with Dems, as he did in that post–Election Day presser. “Now we have a much easier path,” he said, moments after criticizing conservatives who didn’t campaign under his banner and repeatedly calling his party colleagues “the” Republicans. “Democrats will come to us with a plan for infrastructure, a plan for health care, a plan for whatever they are looking at, and we’ll negotiate,” he said.
That rhetoric has even got staunch progressives, like freshman Congressman Joe Neguse from Colorado, seeing an opening. “A lot can be done,” he says, noting an infrastructure bill that could include provisions for adopting renewable energy. Trump’s tone couldn’t have thrilled Republicans, but Washington’s newest arrivals insist they aren’t worried about the president’s cross-party flirtations. “It’s healthy — we’re all Americans,” says Pete Stauber, a former pro hockey player and incoming GOP representative from Minnesota. “The president is going to do what it takes to move the ball,” says Congressman-elect Mark Green of Tennessee, a Republican physician who believes mandating protections for pre-existing conditions could be an area of consensus. “The environment’s changed a little bit.”
What hasn’t changed? Trump’s affection for those who show him affection. Expect Trump to continue to criticize Republicans who, as he said in his presser, didn’t “want to embrace” him ahead of the midterms. Sure, if the two Democrats he casually calls Chuck and Nancy play ball, it might be one of the strangest alliances we’ve seen from the Oval Office. The incentive is there, though. Some might call it a carrot-and-stick approach, but Dems should consider what could happen if you offer this president a cookie.