DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Two facts make this presidential moment distinct. One is the unprecedented questioning of President Trump's mental fitness for office.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The other is President Trump's feeling that he must respond. Over the weekend, the president wrote on Twitter that he is, quote, "like, really smart" and also, quote, "a very stable genius." No president has ever publicly spoken of himself in precisely that way. The president was responding to a book by the writer Michael Wolff who says he believes that every White House staffer he encountered has come to think the president is not up to his job. The president laid the blame for Wolff's access in the White House on his former senior strategist, Steve Bannon.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I don't know this man. I guess sloppy Steve brought him into the White House quite a bit, and it was one of those things. That's why sloppy Steve is now looking for a job.
INSKEEP: The president applying one of his nicknames as he does to people he regards as political enemies. NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis is covering this story and much more. She's in our studios. Good morning, Sue.
SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: Is this what the rest of the president's party wants to be talking about?
DAVIS: No. And I think we know that because one of the consistent criticisms of President Trump from his own party is that, one, they wish he would tweet less. And also when other members of his party have gotten into disagreements or engaged with Steve Bannon in the past, people like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, they have chosen a different path. They have dismissed him. They have not responded. And when asked persistently to engage, they have just said, I don't have anything to say about him. The president has chosen a very different path.
INSKEEP: And this happened on a weekend when the president was at Camp David, the presidential retreat, with Republican leaders. And they didn't want to rehash 2017, which Wolff's book is about. They wanted to talk about 2018.
DAVIS: They do. And this is a broader point here - is that the Republican Party is still trying to figure out what 2018 should be about. It's a midterm election year. The majorities are at stake in Congress. And they need an agenda.
Two of the items coming up that we think we're going to hear a lot about this year are immigration and infrastructure. One of the notable things that the president seemed to be walking away from at Camp David this weekend was Speaker Ryan's insistence that they spend the year focused on overhauling social welfare programs. Mitch McConnell has been hesitant to do something like that in an election year. The president likewise said he didn't see a path forward unless they could get Democrats onboard. Getting Democrats onboard to do something like Paul Ryan would like to do to entitlement programs seems pretty unlikely in 2013.
INSKEEP: OK. You mentioned, though, immigration and infrastructure, two areas where hypothetically, in theory, there is bipartisan agreement. But is there really when you get down to the details?
DAVIS: We're going to know soon enough on immigration. There's a bipartisan meeting at the White House this week between Republicans and Democrats. I think we know what a compromise looks like. The problem with compromise is that usually means the base in both of your parties are going to be probably pretty angry by the end result.
Democrats want some level of legal certainty for certain people living in the country illegally, the so-called DREAMers. Republicans want tougher border enforcement along the U.S.-Mexico border. And the president himself wants tougher crackdowns on legal immigration, which is maybe a bit further than other presidents have called for. In order to get there, it needs to have some combination of those things. They probably have the votes to do it if there's willingness to get there. It's just not clear the political will is there yet.
INSKEEP: Hasn't the president repeatedly taken off the table and then put back on the table his request for billions of dollars for his border wall as well?
DAVIS: He has. And part of - one of the things going into the talks this week is there's a feeling among Democrats that every time they get close to maybe a deal, the president moves the marker. He's - his most current ask from the White House is $18 billion towards the construction of a physical barrier along the border. Democrats like Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin say that they - that that's too much, that that's not fair.
So this is why I think that they - the end goal is one that Republicans and Democrats can agree on, which is a compromise immigration legislation. The details of how you get there are still very much in doubt.
INSKEEP: And I feel obliged to underline the president said Mexico would pay for the wall. We're talking about $18 billion from American taxpayers here.
DAVIS: That is correct.
INSKEEP: OK. And then there's that other thing you mentioned - infrastructure. Is that real?
DAVIS: Infrastructure is the bipartisan bill of the future and may always be in this administration. Again, the end goal is one that Republicans and Democrats agree on, which is why I think it's always pointed to as this thing that could be this great bipartisan achievement of Washington. But how you get there - Republicans and Democrats have very different views of that. Democrats want to spend a lot more money and maybe raise some taxes to do it, and Republicans don't want to do that.
INSKEEP: Before dealing with any of this, lawmakers have to make sure the government doesn't shut down.
DAVIS: That's a familiar problem that they're facing. The government runs out of money on January 19. They're trying to find a longer term budget deal. If they don't do that, they'll do what Congress does best - punt, pass a stopgap funding measure...
INSKEEP: (Laughter) What counts as longer term at this point when they've been doing it three weeks at a time?
DAVIS: And that is often how they like to do it. And if they can't get a longer term deal, that is what's expected to happen this time again.
INSKEEP: What happens to the government when they get funded three weeks at a time or whatever it turns out to be?
DAVIS: It runs on autopilot, which good budgeters will say is very bad budgeting.
INSKEEP: OK. Sue, thanks very much, always a pleasure.
DAVIS: You're welcome.
INSKEEP: That's NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.