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After Attack, Trump and Democrats May Both Get What They Want

This iron rule of Washington politics was in full effect Wednesday: Never waste a crisis, even—or especially—if it's a fatal terrorist assault.
Image: Police look towards the scene of a pickup truck attack on West Side Highway in Manhattan, New York
Police look towards the scene of a pickup truck attack on West Side Highway in Manhattan on Oct. 31.Andrew Kelly / Reuters

WASHINGTON — This iron rule of Washington politics was in full effect Wednesday: Never waste a crisis, even — or especially — if it's a deadly terror attack.

For President Donald Trump, it meant using Sayfullo Saipov, the Uzbek immigrant accused of plowing a truck into cyclists in Manhattan on Tuesday, as an embodiment of the reason Congress should enact his plan to eliminate America's diversity visa lottery program.

For Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., it meant bashing the president for proposing to cut anti-terrorism funding for big cities like New York that the lawmaker vowed to protect.

Both men could end up getting what they want.

That's because Congress is in the midst of high-stakes debates over immigration and the federal budget, both of which will require give and take from Trump and Schumer. And while Americans have grown accustomed to horrific events having little or no effect on issues like gun control, Tuesday's truck attack touches policy areas on which politicians are more likely to be swayed.

"The gun control debate is completely calcified," said Lis Smith, a New York-based Democratic strategist. "That's not the case with national security or immigration."

Trump began casting blame for the attack — on Schumer, Democrats and the visa lottery program — early Wednesday morning on Twitter.

Schumer shot back from the floor of the Senate, also wrapping his policy argument in a personal attack that smacked of blame.

"President Trump, instead of politicizing and dividing America, which he always seems to do at times of national tragedy, should be bringing us together and focusing on the real solution — anti-terrorism funding — which he proposed to cut in his most recent budget," Schumer said.

The truth is that Congress is more likely to increase, not reduce, funding for the main program Schumer was talking about — the Department of Homeland Security's Urban Area Security Initiative grants.

In its fiscal 2018 budget, the Republican-run House Appropriations Committee allocated $630 million for grants — a $25 million bump — rather than the $157 million reduction Trump had sought. While Congress still must pass a full-year funding bill to keep the government operating through Dec. 8, it would be a shocking reversal of course if lawmakers chose to slash the anti-terrorism account, particularly in light of the New York attack.

Trump's path to eliminating the diversity lottery program is more cluttered, but it may be navigable. Last month, he released a hard-line immigration crackdown plan that was widely perceived as his opening bid in negotiations with Democrats over whether and how to write a law protecting so-called Dreamers from deportation.

That plan contained a series of provisions designed to make the U.S. visa system more merit-based, including the elimination of the diversity lottery program, a bipartisan law Schumer helped write and President George H.W. Bush signed into law in 1990.

Many advocates for immigrants think that's a mistake and are critical of Trump for using Tuesday's attack to push for ending the program.

Caroline Ventura looks down at flowers she laid for victims of Tuesday's terror attack outside a police barricade on the bike path. Shannon Stapleton / Reuters

"The Trump administration will use this tragedy as an opportunity to decrease legal immigration and dismantle our nation's immigration system," said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum. "By providing skilled workers, the diversity visa program is a very small but valuable program that allows American businesses to compete in a global economy."

The attack makes it harder for proponents to defend the program "if it had to be voted on today," said Robert Raben, the former counsel to House Judiciary Committee Democrats.

"But since it's part of a larger pattern of flailing, blame assignment and obfuscation that the president is masterful at, there are diminishing returns to every single tweeted criticism," Raben said. "This morning it’s the diversity lottery that’s the problem; this afternoon it will be the Home Depot for sponsoring the truck the murderer rented."

Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., suggested Wednesday that Trump could be antagonizing a potential ally in Schumer, noting that the New York lawmaker had been willing to compromise on a more merit-based system when they worked together on the Senate's Gang of Eight immigration-reform group several years ago.

Trump "should express solidarity with those trying to fix this program," Flake said.

That's the tack taken by Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., the co-author of an immigration bill that would end the diversity lottery program.

"While Senate Democrats originally created the Diversity Visa Lottery in 1990, many have supported legislation that would have eliminated it in the years since," Perdue said. "I hope we can include this area of common ground as we work to fix our broken immigration system and strengthen our national security."