If every picture tells a story, the obviously staged photo released by the White House during the weekend-long shutdown of the federal government spoke volumes about Donald Trump's presidency.
The photo showed the president seated in the Oval Office behind his desk, stripped barren of papers, wearing a white "Make America Great Again" hat and holding a telephone up to his ear. He casts his gaze toward the camera as if to say, "See? I really am in charge."
The Twitterverse had fun with the photo. Images went viral that showed an electric train set, a plastic telephone and other toys on the president's shiny desktop.
Staged or not, the photo's timing illustrated a troubling reality of the Trump presidency. As a Washington Post headline put it, "White House shutdown strategy: Keep Trump contained."
It was the president, after all, who fanned the fires that led to the shutdown and made the crisis worse with vulgar comments about immigrants. His signals were so mixed that even Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell admitted to being unsure on Wednesday, two days before the old budget law ran out, of what the president would sign.
The confusion was understandable in light of President Trump's ambivalence, swinging from a willingness to sign just about anything Congress sends him to an insistence that the bill include extensive funding for a wall along the Mexican border.
Two weeks ago, Trump declared that if Congress came up with a plan to protect the "Dreamers," undocumented immigrants brought here as children, while building up border security, he would sign it.
Two days later, he rejected a plan brought to him by a bipartisan group of senators -- and enhanced the drama by famously complaining about immigrants from "s---hole countries."
On Friday, Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer appeared to seal a short-term agreement with Trump. But by the time he returned to Capitol Hill, as Schumer described it, Trump withdrew the deal. That caused a frustrated Schumer to remark that working with Trump is "like negotiating with Jell-O."
That's probably an insult to Jell-O. The combination of Trump's short attention span and persistent anti-immigrant pressures from his political base and immigration hawks in Congress apparently persuaded him to harden his heart.
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But in the end, it was hard to deny that Republicans had won, the Democrats had caved and the Democratic party's progressive wing was furious at Schumer.
Schumer called off the filibuster after McConnell promised to consider legislation by early February to extend DACA beyond the March deadline that President Trump announced last year, a deadline which could lead to deportation of an estimated 700,000 people.
There is broad support for DACA, even among Republicans, as a matter of fairness to young people who know no other home country but this one. But a minority of Republican hardliners who want more limits, not expansion, has meant the immigration measure requires some votes from Democrats to win passage.
Now the future of DACA relies on a promise from McConnell to take it up in the next three weeks, now that the rest of the budget deal has been approved. But there's no guarantee that he will stick by his promise or, if the measure does pass the Senate, that House Republicans will take it up.
That's why many Democratic progressives, in particular, feel betrayed by their own leaders' reluctance to fight it out, even if it means a long government shutdown. "This shows me," said Rep. Luis Gutierrez, an Illinois Democrat and leader on the immigration issue, "that when it comes to immigrants, Latinos and their families, Democrats are not willing to go to the mat."
But Democrats also have had to face another reality: They're negotiating from a position of weakness, having lost control of both Congress and the White House. Republicans already have been running robo-calls in swing states like Ohio accusing Democrats of holding up children's health care in order to help undocumented immigrants.
It is a political tragedy that the lives of productive DACA youths have become pawns in Washington's political games, especially since support for a permanent Dreamer fix is high in both parties. Yet when even the controlling party has trouble telling what their own president wants, that's the reality in which we live -- at least until the next elections.
(E-mail Clarence Page at email@example.com.)(c) 2018 CLARENCE PAGE DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.