Democratic leaders Wednesday night declared that they had a deal with President Donald Trump to quickly extend protections for young undocumented immigrants and to finalize a border security package that does not include the president’s proposed wall.
The Democrats, Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York and Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, said in a joint statement that they had had a “very productive” dinner meeting with the president at the White House that focused on the program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. “We agreed to enshrine the protections of DACA into law quickly, and to work out a package of border security, excluding the wall, that’s acceptable to both sides,” they said.
In its own statement, the White House was far more muted, mentioning DACA as merely one of several issues that were discussed, including tax reform and infrastructure. It called the meeting, which came a week after the president struck a stunning spending-and-debt deal with the Democratic leaders, “a positive step toward the president’s strong commitment to bipartisan solutions.”
But the bipartisan comity appeared to have its limits. In a tweet, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, disputed the Democrats’ characterization of Trump’s stance on the border wall. “While DACA and border security were both discussed, excluding the wall was certainly not agreed to,” she wrote.
Schumer’s communications director, Matt House, fired back on Twitter: “The President made clear he would continue pushing the wall, just not as part of this agreement.”
While Democratic leaders sought to frame the dinner as a victory for their priorities, Republican votes will be needed for any immigration overhaul. Hard-liners in Congress were flummoxed by word of a potential deal on DACA, one that could push some of Trump’s electoral base away from him.
Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, wrote on Twitter that if the reports were true, “Trump base is blown up, destroyed, irreparable, and disillusioned beyond repair. No promise is credible.” The website Breitbart, run by Trump’s former chief strategist, Stephen Bannon, had the headline “Amnesty Don.”
Some Republicans were more receptive. Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, a frequent critic of the president, said on Twitter: “Kudos to @POTUS for pursuing agreement that will protect #Dreamers from deportation.” The young immigrants are often referred to as Dreamers.
The dinner was a follow-up to a meeting that Schumer and Pelosi had with the president in the Oval Office last week, during which Trump agreed to the Democrats’ proposal for a vote on a debt-ceiling increase and a government funding measure that also included a Hurricane Harvey aid package.
While the two top Republican congressional leaders, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Speaker Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, attended that meeting, they were absent from the Wednesday night dinner.
A total of 11 people were seated at the table in the Blue Room of the White House on Wednesday night, with the first 30 minutes of the meeting focused on China trade issues, according to one person briefed on the dinner. The meal served was Chinese food, an intentional nod to China trade, on which Trump and Schumer hold their closest views.
On the DACA program, Trump has given Congress six months to find a legislative solution to extend the protections that President Barack Obama granted by executive order. But before the dinner Wednesday night, prospects for quickly enacting a replacement for DACA had appeared to be flagging in Congress.
“With all the other things going on right now, it’s kind of put on the back burner,” said Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., who had pulled back a petition he had hoped to use to force the House to take up legislation on the program. Rep. Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, has said that the program is at the end of a list of immigration priorities.
Several top Republican leaders in Congress, including Ryan, have said that they want to tackle the issue of the young immigrants in conjunction with a broader immigration reform and border security effort.
But Republicans have been mostly enraged with Trump since the Oval Office meeting last week, where he sided with the Democratic leadership over his own party and his own Treasury secretary in favor of a December debt-ceiling vote. Ryan, who preferred a longer-term deal, had called such a three-month plan ridiculous.
Some Republicans have been concerned that the president, who has been pursuing more of a bipartisan patina as he struggles to secure major legislative achievements and his poll numbers sink over his handling of the racially charged violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, will go along with Democratic priorities.
A White House aide insisted that Trump had always left open the possibility of passing a DACA fix without funding for a border wall and insisted that he had not moved away from the wall as a priority. During the Wednesday dinner, it was John F. Kelly, Trump’s chief of staff, who made the more detailed case for the wall, according to a person briefed on the discussion.
The wall was a key campaign pledge by Trump, but Democrats are vehemently against it.
Trump recently began to wind down DACA, which has provided protection from deportation for roughly 800,000 young undocumented immigrants. But he has been torn about it.
The president has sent conflicting signals about his intentions regarding the program, saying he would end it but urging Congress to come up with a legislative solution during the six-month wind-down period. But he has also told people he would revisit the issue after six months if Congress did not act.
That would be a difficult task, since his own attorney general, Jeff Sessions, has declared DACA unconstitutional and an overreach of authority. It is not clear what mechanism Trump thinks he might have to put the program back in place through the executive branch.
At the White House earlier Wednesday, Trump’s anti-immigration national policy adviser, Stephen Miller, told people that the administration would never allow a version of the replacement legislation, known as the DREAM Act, to pass.
Trump’s zigzagging statements on the program, and his drift back toward preserving it, came after days of deeply negative news media coverage over his decision to end the program. Trump, who pays close attention to the headlines, told advisers he was bothered by the seemingly endless bad press over DACA.
During the campaign, Trump promised to end DACA. But in April, he indicated that people covered under the program had nothing to fear from his administration. However, several states, led by Texas, threatened a lawsuit, which Sessions used to nudge the president toward a decision.
While Schumer and Pelosi were celebrating their apparent agreement with Trump on the “Dreamers” and border security, the president himself had nothing to say about the dinner on his favorite communication platform.
Instead, Trump renewed his attacks on Hillary Clinton, who was back in the news this week promoting her campaign memoir, “What Happened.”
“Crooked Hillary Clinton blames everybody (and every thing) but herself for her election loss,” he tweeted around 11 p.m. as cable news channels and news websites blared the news of his dinner with the Democratic leaders. “She lost the debates and lost her direction!”
Minutes later, he followed up with another Clinton broadside: “The ‘deplorables’ came back to haunt Hillary. They expressed their feelings loud and clear. She spent big money but, in the end, had no game!”
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