WASHINGTON – House Speaker Paul Ryan could not have been more clear.
After meeting with his Republican caucus Wednesday morning on the first day back from their long summer break, he declared at a news conference that Democrats’ call for a three-month extension of the government’s borrowing limit was “ridiculous.”
“That’s ridiculous and disgraceful, that they want to play politics with the debt ceiling at this moment,” he repeated. He called it “unworkable,” said it would jeopardize hurricane response and called out Democratic leaders by name for promoting what “I don’t think is a good idea.”
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About an hour later, Ryan and other GOP leaders sat in the White House with President Donald Trump, who told them he wants … a three-month increase of the debt ceiling, just as Democrats proposed.
Such chaos and confusion at the highest level of American government hadn’t been seen since, well, the day before.
On Tuesday, even as the administration announced that it was ending protection from deportation for the 800,000 “dreamers” – mostly young people who know no country but America – there were signs that Trump had no idea what he was doing. “As late as one hour before the decision was to be announced, administration officials privately expressed concern that Mr. Trump might not fully grasp the details of the steps he was about to take, and when he discovered their full impact, would change his mind,” Michael Shear and Julie Hirschfeld Davis of the New York Times reported, citing an anonymous source.
Sure enough, Trump fired off a tweet Tuesday night that revised his position. He called on Congress to “legalize” the dreamers program and vowed to “revisit this issue” if Congress can’t.
Even Trump’s close advisers seem to have little knowledge of, much less control over, what he says and does.
Trump has signaled that he wants to end a free-trade deal with South Korea, even though his national security adviser, his defense secretary and the director of the National Economic Council all object. He and Defense Secretary James Mattis have contradicted each other about whether to talk with North Korea. Chief of Staff John Kelly’s attempts to tone down Trump’s antics have reportedly led Trump to escalate his attacks – on Kelly. Trump has publicly criticized Attorney General Jeff Sessions and repeatedly contradicted Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Ivanka Trump and husband Jared Kushner have let it leak that Trump ignored their advice on Charlottesville and other matters.
One imagines a future scene in the Situation Room:
The president: Why don’t we bomb Guam so the North Koreans can’t?
The secretary of state: That’s part of our country, sir.
The secretary of defense: We have thousands of troops there.
The national security adviser: And 150,000 innocent civilians.
The chief of staff: It would be a humanitarian and strategic catastrophe.
Ivanka Trump: Please don’t do this, Dad.
Jared Kushner: [Silence].
The president: It’s settled. We begin bombing in five minutes. Let’s hit Hawaii, too. But not my hotel in Waikiki.
The unreliability of Trump has put an unusual burden on Congress, which is ill equipped to bear it.
Outside the House caucus gathering the morning after Trump’s immigration announcement, Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), an immigration hard-liner, angrily opposed legislative action for the dreamers, saying they can “live in the shadows” and demanding GOP leaders not “divide our conference over an amnesty act.”
Minutes later, Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.), took the opposite view, threatening to use a “discharge petition” with Democrats to force a vote on protecting the dreamers if the House doesn’t act.
Ryan put the responsibility right back on Trump for the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) legislation. “We will not be advancing legislation that does not have the support of President Trump, because we’re going to work with the president on how to do this legislation,” he said. Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) urged Trump to lead.
But what does Trump support?
“We love the dreamers. … We think the dreamers are terrific,” Trump said last week, four days before putting them in jeopardy of deportation.
“I have a great heart for the folks we are talking about, a great love for them,” Trump said on the same day his administration announced the end of protection for the dreamers.
What does the president want? Nobody knows – not his advisers, not his fellow Republicans in Congress, and probably not Trump himself.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.