Closed Meetings and Open Mouths

A flurry of comment about the president's language

By Andrew R. Arthur on January 14, 2018

On January 12, 2018, the Washington Post reported that President Donald Trump used an expletive during a closed-door, bipartisan meeting with members of Congress about proposals to regularize the status of nationals from Haiti, El Salvador, and unspecified African countries. According to the paper:

Outlining a potential bipartisan deal, the lawmakers discussed restoring protections for countries that have been removed from the temporary protected status (TPS) program while committing $1.5 billion for a border wall and making changes to the visa lottery system. Lawmakers mentioned that members of the Congressional Black Caucus had requested that some African countries be included in a deal, according to a White House official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe a private conversation.

The exchange was "salty" on all sides, this person said, with the president growing profane and animated while discussing immigrants from other countries. "It did not go well," this person said.

The meeting in question was reportedly attended by Sens. Lindsay Graham, Dick Durbin, and Tom Cotton, as well as by Rep. Bob Goodlatte, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, and possibly by others.

The president has subsequently denied making those statements, but Durbin has contended that they were, in fact, made.

The key point about that meeting that has been lost in all of the discussions and reporting of that alleged statement, however, is the fact that the president is plainly playing an active role in the negotiations of a bill to address the status of aliens have been granted Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).

The president has made immigration a priority, releasing a list of immigration principles and policies in October that he wanted to be included in any consideration of DACA deal. In fact, the meeting was his second bipartisan meeting in three days relating to that proposed legislation; that first meeting, however, was open to the press. The fact that the president is so intensely involved in these negotiations indicates that he is serious about that pledge.

Contrast this with the hands-off approach that President Obama took during the negotiations on his signature issue — healthcare. As Gerald Seib stated in the Wall Street Journal in September 2009:

As a matter of political and legislative strategy, the White House has never actually presented an "Obama health-care bill." As in the earlier quest for an economic-stimulus package, it chose instead to enunciate some general principles and let Congress craft the actual legislation. Four committees have done so, and a fifth is trying.

A second point should be made, however. Generally, such off-the-record meetings are just that, off the record. General outlines of bipartisan legislative discussions may be disclosed by the participants (at the risk of proposals being subsequently altered or deleted), but the specific language used is generally not disclosed. As a former congressional staffer, I can assure you that such discussions often become heated, and that is not uncommon to hear vulgarity used by otherwise staid politicians (although I have no recollection of any epithets at any meeting I attended).

This president is just one year into his elective career, and although he is a skilled and experienced negotiator, it is no slight to say that he is still a novice in his current position. He likely learned a valuable lesson from this incident, whether he made the statements attributed to him or not. In Washington, every microphone is on and every word spoken must be chosen carefully, and now, even off-the-record conversations are fair game for political opponents.

Topics: Politics