The president’s translator explains his changing mind

As a president who speaks out of both sides of his mouth, first saying he will sign any immigration and border security bill placed before him and then reneging, Donald Trump needs to have an interpreter. Emerging in that role is White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, the tough former Marine general who went up to Capitol Hill Wednesday to sort things out.

Meeting with various legislators, Kelly, without engaging in the offensive gutter language that had boss in a defensive crouch, sought to position Trump as a reasonable if somewhat hemmed-in novice having difficulty separating campaigning from governing.

Kelly assured his listeners that the president remained determined to deliver on both objectives. He told Fox News: “He has evolved in the way he looks at things. Campaigning to governing are two different things, and this president has been very flexible in terms of what’s in the realm of the possible.”

Kelly went on to say, “There’s no doubt in my mind there’s going to be a deal, so long as men and women on both sides are willing to talk.” But of course there’s the rub: Trump constantly sends confusing signals by frequently changing what he says he will and won’t accept.

As Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell put it the same day, “I’m looking for something that President Trump supports, and he’s not yet indicated what measure he’s willing to sign.”

Kelly he insisted Trump “is committed to a permanent solution to DACA,” the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program initiated by President Obama to safeguard undocumented immigrants brought here as young children.

But later in an interview with Reuters, Trump balked at a bipartisan agreement worked out by Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Democratic Minority Whip Dick Durban of Illinois, who had first reported hearing Trump disparage Haiti and African nations “shithole countries.” The president called their compromise “horrible” and “very, very weak,” saying it was “the opposite of what I campaigned for.”

Kelly in inserting himself as an interpreter for Trump with the hard edges rounded off, credited himself with getting the president to detour his original intent to erase DACA at once in September. “I worked to get the six-month extension of DACA,” he said. “I ordered that. I managed that. And everyone has thanked me for that.”

The observation was a rare declaration in Trumpworld of a staff subordinate, no matter how high up, taking credit for any major decision Trump always insists is his own. Kelly also sought to temper any impression that the southern border wall touted by his boss would be as comprehensive as he originally indicated.

When Kelly was asked to describe Trump’s proposed wall, he acknowledged, according to Democratic Rep. Luis Gutierrez of Illinois, that “certain things are said during the campaign that are not fully informed about every policy, and that campaigning and governing are two different things, and that governing is harder.”

Kelly told the legislators that “a concrete wall from sea to shining sea” was not going to be built, and “was not a realistic solution in many places.” Rather, he said, “we need 700 more miles of barrier” across the 2,100 miles along the U.S.-Mexican border to do the job of coping with illegal immigration as it now exists.

More pointedly, he added, it will not be a wall “that Mexico will pay for,” though “in one way or another it’s possible that we could get the revenue from Mexico, but not directly from their government.”

Kelly acknowledged that Trump had “campaigned against DACA” but since then “he’s lightened up.” Thus did the president’s interpreter explain how the nation’s leader was able to justify saying one thing and then doing another. No doubt he will have many more such opportunities ahead.

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Jules Witcover’s latest book is “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books.