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Trump Forces Terrified Republicans to Bend the Knee Yet Again

Mitch McConnell’s capitulation to the former president exposes the real MAGA.

Trump and McConnell in 2019
Al Drago/Bloomberg/Getty Images
Trump and McConnell in 2019

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is on the verge of pulling the plug on any hopes for a bipartisan deal that includes funding for border security and aid to Ukraine. The culprit? Donald Trump, who has been urging Republicans to reject any deal, on the apparent theory that any compromise with Democrats will be insufficiently anti-immigrant by definition.

This has been widely seen as evidence that Trump wants border chaos to continue to use against President Biden in the election. But this whole episode reveals something else too: What Trump and the MAGA right really fear above all is a system that might function better without resorting to the maximally cruel and extreme restrictions they see as the only acceptable “solution.”

Punchbowl News reports that McConnell privately told GOP senators that with Trump winning the GOP nomination, the “politics have changed” on immigration, and a deal might “undermine him.” As Punchbowl notes, McConnell is “acknowledging Trump’s continued stranglehold on the GOP.”

Meanwhile, CNN reports that McConnell believes the GOP is in a “quandary” because Senate Republicans are divided on any deal, and anything the Senate passes would be opposed by House Republicans, who only want their own wildly radical border bill.

McConnell insists that talks are still ongoing. But at the very least, he is in the process of surrendering to the idea that Trump is in control of outcomes here.

Either way, the key question is this: What exactly are Trump, most Senate Republicans, and the House GOP rejecting as insufficient in terms of “securing the border”?

At the center of the talks is the $14 billion that Biden has asked for to fund new border enforcement agents, expanded detention, expedited consideration of asylum claims, and other border security measures. Republicans initially said that’s not enough without major policy changes.

So Democrats agreed to many policy concessions. Negotiators have reportedly agreed on provisions such as raising the bar to qualify for asylum, more expedited removal of some migrants from the interior, and a trigger that effectively closes down asylum seeking if border encounters climb too high.

I can add more: Negotiators have also been discussing the creation of a whole new process for administrations to remove asylum-seekers who fail their initial screening, according to sources close to the talks.

What’s more, due to that and other policy changes on the table, the emerging deal would end up spending substantially more money on immigration enforcement than even what Biden has requested, according to the sources.

That Republicans reject all these serious new restrictions—including much more border security spending—as insufficient shows how extreme the MAGA-fied GOP posture on this issue has become.

To illustrate the point, consider that Republicans have also pushed to gut Biden’s parole programs, which admit tens of thousands monthly who apply from abroad. Democrats have rejected this, angering Republicans who insist those programs abuse Biden’s parole authority.

But it’s important to understand why Democrats are rejecting this. These parole programs provide alternative legal pathways for migrants to enter the United States by securing a sponsor from afar and then flying into the country. Rather than requiring them to come to the border and seek asylum, this creates an orderly, rules-bound way to enter instead.

This is a crucial innovation under Biden: The idea is to shift incentives away from the very sort of migration—crossing the border and then requesting asylum—that is creating the strains on the border infrastructure that Republicans claim to fear and loathe.

Republicans should applaud that shift. But they oppose those programs precisely because they allow migrants to enter the country in a functional way. They’re abandoning a compromise that would spend billions more on border security; make asylum seeking more efficient, including removing those who don’t qualify faster; and create numerous other ways to expedite removal—because it doesn’t gut legal immigration programs that are working well.

What Republicans object to isn’t border chaos. It’s having more migrants come here successfully and efficiently.

Here’s a nuanced reading of McConnell’s position, offered by someone close to the talks: He now sees that due to Trump, the deal might not win enough GOP senators to pass with moderate Democrats. So he’s telling Republicans it’s time to decide whether they’ll let Trump dictate the outcome or accept a compromise that does much of what they want. The right answer is clear.

It’s sometimes argued that Democrats too are unreasonable on immigration; that they refuse to accept restrictions that are politically and substantively imperative. It’s true that any compromise would have to include new restrictions on asylum (my preferred deal would trade that for legalization of some undocumented immigrants living here and expanded legal pathways for entry). It’s also true that some on the left would reject such a deal.

But now that Republicans are balking at the compromise on the table, simply because Trump is instructing them to, it cannot be denied that the right is the primary obstacle to any reasonable compromise on this issue.

Underscoring the point, Trump has been telling Republicans to sink the deal so that he can “fix” immigration if elected again. It’s worth remembering that Trump was already president once, and guess what: He too released a lot of migrants into the interior, and he couldn’t pass his immigration agenda even with unified GOP control. But that aside, what he really means is this: Republicans must reject any deal that improves the system in ways both sides can accept, because the public might like it, closing off any chance at exploiting the current challenges to push his own wildly extreme agenda.

It’s often said that Republicans want border chaos for political reasons. But their opposition to compromise is more telling than that: Anything that reforms immigration without dramatically slashing legal immigration must be rejected, because to them, it isn’t a solution at all.