KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
With me now to talk about all this are columnists E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and the Brookings Institution - hey, E.J...
E J DIONNE, BYLINE: Great to be with you.
MCEVERS: ...And John Phillips of the Orange County Register, CNN and KABC. Welcome.
JOHN PHILLIPS: Good afternoon.
MCEVERS: I think we have to start with what we just heard in Scott Horsley's piece, this word used by President Trump. And E.J., I'll start with you. What does this comment by the president, a comment, we should say, he has denied saying - what does it tell us about him?
DIONNE: Well, first of all, we've reached a dreadful point in our politics when a president uses a racist phrase so crude that many are reluctant to use it on the air or in print. The denial lacks pretty much all credibility. He waited 15 hours after the original report before he denied it. There were reports out there that he checked around yesterday to see how it was playing in the base. There are other reports saying he's happy about the controversy. And even the Republicans who were there did not deny it. They said they don't recall his saying it.
DIONNE: So I think we've reached the point where there can simply be no denying that our president is a racist. And what underscores that is he wanted immigrants from Norway, but he didn't want immigrants from Salvador or Haiti or Africa. Now, what is the difference between Norway and those other places? I think we know what the difference is.
MCEVERS: John, what do you think? Is this - what does this tell us about President Trump?
PHILLIPS: Well, I haven't heard this word used so many times since my friend quit his job to strike it rich flipping homes.
PHILLIPS: And then suddenly we start hearing the word all over the place. Look; I don't think anyone's all that surprised frankly because President Andrew Dice Trump has been known to pepper...
PHILLIPS: ...His language with vulgarities on occasion. It happened when he was a real estate developer and in the tabloids. It happened when he was a television host. It happened during the primary campaign. So I don't think anyone is truly surprised.
Now, the overall policy point that he was reinforcing was something that's very consistent with what Donald Trump said as a candidate. He was highly critical of the lottery program. He was highly critical about giving preferential treatment to the hard luck cases. He has long thought that people with marketable skills, people with the ability to assimilate should be given preferential treatment. And frankly, I think there's a lot of truth to that. We live in a screwed up world where doctors from India or IT people from Britain are treated worse than the Tsarnaev family.
MCEVERS: You know...
DIONNE: I got to jump in on that. If this were simply a matter of the president using a vulgarity, we wouldn't be talking about it. Other politicians have used vulgarities. This was a racist vulgarity. This was directed at people who have immigrated here. And by the way, it was an ignorant vulgarity because so many of the immigrants from Haiti and from Africa and from Salvador have been very successful, are very hard working.
And lastly, the president sabotaged a deal that Lindsey Graham and Jeff Flake, both Republicans, negotiated with the Democrats to give the president a lot of what they wanted. They had very clear indications that the president felt that the concessions in the deal were enough for him, and then they were sandbagged. And there's a lot of speculation that somebody in the White House decided to sabotage the deal before...
DIONNE: ...The president agreed to it.
MCEVERS: Well, let's talk about these negotiations on immigration policy, right? At the beginning of the week, we had the president saying he would sign any deal that legislators put on his desk. Let's listen to that.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I'm signing it. I mean, I will be signing it. I'm not going to say, oh, gee, I want this, or I want that. I'll be signing it because I have a lot of confidence in the people in this room that you're going to come up with something really good.
MCEVERS: And yet the president then insisted that the border wall was non-negotiable.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Would you be willing to sign an immigration deal that ultimately does not include funding for the border wall, or would that be...
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: ...A red line for you?
TRUMP: No, no, no.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: No.
TRUMP: It's got to include the wall. We need the wall for security. We need the wall for safety. We need the wall for stopping the drugs from pouring in.
MCEVERS: And so John, let me just put this to you. Does the president undermine his own prospects for a deal by seeming to waver on his position, by saying one thing in one meeting and another thing on another day?
PHILLIPS: I don't think so. I hope that Alan Simpson gave him a good, long talking to because what Democrats are proposing now is what failed with the 1980 Simpson-Mazzoli immigration act, which is where President Reagan gave amnesty to a lot of illegal immigrants who were here. And in return, border security was supposed to come afterwards. Well, as we know, the immigrants were given their amnesty. Border Security never came. And if Donald Trump is going to cut a deal with the Democrats and cut a deal with congressional Republicans this time around, border security needs to come first, and that includes the wall.
DIONNE: But that's not what this negotiation was about. This negotiation was about a bill to protect DREAMers, people brought here as children by their parents who are as American as any of us involved in this conversation. And the concessions that were made were very much about border security. In this package that Lindsey Graham brought to the White House with Senator Durbin were new protections on the border, new fencing, an end - a real reform to what's called chain immigration that the president wanted and a reform of the lottery that President Trump has been critical of. So this was a very balanced package that he chose to reject and then blew up, made things much more difficult with the way he rejected it.
MCEVERS: Yeah, right. I mean, E.J., I'm wondering if you think - do the Democrats have a stronger hand now since, you know, news of these comments have come out?
DIONNE: You know, I was up on the Hill yesterday and then talked today. And yesterday, there was real hopefulness on the Democratic side. There were real communication between Graham and the Democratic leadership and a willingness by Democrats to put a lot of stuff on the table that was probably going to be unpopular with some of their more liberal members. Now they can say, we made all these concessions, and the president blew us out of the room with this racist comment. I think the politics have changed radically in the Democrats' favor, and I think Republicans know this.
MCEVERS: John, what do you think?
PHILLIPS: I think there's still a lot of pressure on any number of Senate Democrats who are running for re-election in states that Donald Trump won overwhelmingly, people like Joe Manchin in West Virginia, Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota, Claire McCaskill in Missouri. Strict border security needs to be part of this bill, and they need to be able to sell that to their constituents if they're going to survive re-election.
DIONNE: And it was in there, and that's why this package could have flown if the president hadn't blown it up.
MCEVERS: E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and the Brookings Institution - we will leave it there - and John Phillips of the Orange County Register, CNN and KABC, thanks to both of you, as always.
DIONNE: Thank you.
PHILLIPS: Thank you. Have a good weekend. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.