An ad-libbed moment in President Donald Trump's latest State of the Union address is the key to interpreting it.
"I want people to come into our country in the largest numbers ever, but they have to come in legally," Trump said. The words "in the largest numbers ever" did not appear in the prepared version of the remarks.
They are also a poor fit for the Trump administration's record. In 2017, Trump endorsed the RAISE Act, a bill that would sharply reduce legal immigration. As the White House put it, "The RAISE Act reduces overall immigration numbers to limit low-skilled and unskilled labor entering the United States."
When senators offered legislation in 2018 to provide $25 billion for border security in return for permanent legal status for illegal immigrants who came to our country as minors, Trump said he would veto it in large part because the legislation did not include the cuts in legal immigration he wanted.
There's a case for Trump's 2017-18 position that legal immigration levels should be cut. There's a case for his position last night that the levels should be raised. Obviously you can't take both views simultaneously. Perhaps the way to make sense of his shift from the first to the second is to assume that Trump has decided to give up on cutting legal immigration in order to achieve his more important goal of sealing the southern border—that he is tacitly admitting that his previous stance was a tactical mistake.
But there's another way to explain the shift, and I think there's more evidence for it: Trump wasn't serious about either position. Trump did almost nothing to win support for the legal-immigration cuts. When 14 Republican senators joined almost all Democrats to vote against those cuts, he didn't even tweet about it. He hasn't returned to the topic of cutting legal immigration since then.
We are used to presidents who have legislative priorities, stick to them and make deals with congressmen to advance them. President Trump is either unwilling or unable to do much of this work, even on his signature issue of immigration control. His copious day-to-day commentary is often disconnected from that work.
A few days after losing the immigration vote, for example, he told a group of lawmakers that he favored taking guns away from the mentally ill before going to court, raising the age for buying rifles and taking on the National Rifle Association. He never followed through on any of it. Nobody really expected anything else: His own aides largely ignored his comments.
Over the last two months, the president has said that the southern border is already secure, that he would shut down the government to get a wall on that secure border, that actually the Democrats had shut down the government, and that he is considering declaring a national emergency in the name of a wall that he assures us is being built. There was no master strategy behind all of these remarks, just a president who says things serially without caring whether they cohere.
In the hours before the State of the Union speech, aides explained that Trump would emphasize the theme of unity and plug bipartisan initiatives, and so he did. It would not be a bad strategy for him to follow. But those themes don't line up with how Trump has behaved in the past and are unlikely to govern how he or his aides will act after, at most, a few days. Sticking to plans, even flexible ones, has not been a hallmark of this presidency. It's not a presidency that places a lot of weight on the president's words, either.
Whether you loved the speech or hated it, it's not going to set the agenda for Washington, D.C. this year, or for the administration, or even for Trump himself.
He may have forgotten he said it already.