President Donald Trump and Democratic congressional leaders reached a tentative agreement Wednesday night to provide a pathway to citizenship for young immigrants known as Dreamers — but after a conservative backlash, the president and his aides sent conflicting signals about how firm the agreement was.
After a meeting with Trump at the White House on Wednesday night, Democratic leaders Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi said they had come to terms with Trump on a plan that would provide protection for Dreamers in exchange for beefed-up border security — but, notably, no additional funding for a border wall.
“We all agreed on a framework: Pass DACA protections and additional security measures, excluding the wall. We agreed that the president would support enshrining the DACA protections into law,” Schumer (D-N.Y.) said on the Senate floor Thursday.
The news triggered an outcry from the right, which accused Trump of abandoning his tough-on-immigration campaign stance. So Trump and his aides rebutted Democrats’ claims that an agreement had been struck — while at the same time acknowledging the outlines of a deal.
“No deal was made last night on DACA. Massive border security would have to be agreed to in exchange for consent. Would be subject to vote,” Trump tweeted.
Added White House spokeswoman Lindsay Walters: “By no means was any deal ever agreed upon.”
Yet it seemed to be a matter of semantics. Speaking briefly to reporters shortly after his tweet, Trump said he and the Democratic leaders were close to a deal on the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, but that any agreement would hinge on “massive border security,” adding that funding for a border wall will come “a little bit later.”
He also said he had spoken to House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and that both are “on board” with a DACA-for-border-security deal with Democrats. The meeting Wednesday night did not include Ryan and McConnell, whom Trump spurned for Pelosi and Schumer on a fiscal deal last week.
“Well, we want to get massive border security, and I think that both Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, I think they agree with it … we’re fairly close, but we have to get massive border security,” the president said. “Ryan and McConnell agree with us on DACA. We’re very much on board. I spoke to them, yes.”
Responding to accusations he was backing “amnesty,” Trump also said Thursday: “We’re not looking at citizenship. We’re not looking at amnesty. We’re looking at allowing people to stay here.”
Contrary to Trump’s suggestion before boarding Air Force One that he had already conferred with Republican leadership about a DACA deal, Ryan said he spoke to Trump about the deal while the president was in the air Thursday. The speaker was insistent that no deal has been struck and that true negotiations have not even begun.
“There is no agreement. The president and the chief of staff called me from Air Force One today to discuss what was discussed. And it was a discussion, not an agreement or a negotiation,” the speaker told reporters Thursday. “We have not begun negotiations. What we’re doing is talking with ourselves here in our majority to make sure we’re all on the same page ourselves before we proceed on all of these things, and it’s right and proper that the president talks with the other party, the Wisconsin Republican said. “These were discussions, not negotiations. There isn’t an agreement.”
Following Trump’s tweets on Thursday morning, Schumer and Pelosi said that while the details still need to be hammered out, Trump was not directly contradicting the pact reached at dinner. They said they agreed to forgo the wall as part of this deal with the president — though he would still pursue it — and that a border security package still had to be hammered out but could include new technology and roads.
“If you listened to the president’s comments this morning, [Budget] Director [Mick] Mulvaney’s comments this morning, it is clear that what Leader Pelosi and I put out last night was exactly accurate,” Schumer said.
Trump also didn’t deny Thursday morning that building the border wall could be separate from any DACA deal. But he emphasized that the wall, which he says is currently under construction “in the form of new renovation of old and existing fences and walls, will continue to be built.” Schumer and Pelosi vowed to continue opposing it.
The agreement came as a surprise to most Republican leaders on Capitol Hill, according to two GOP aides, the second time Trump has blindsided them this month after his deal with Pelosi and Schumer on the debt ceiling.
Trump seems to enjoy spending time with the Democrats. A senior White House official said the dinner was “jovial” and there was frequent laughter — and Trump seemed very pleased afterward. The official expects more meetings among the president and the two top Democrats.
But some Republicans accused Trump of backing away from his core campaign promises. Rep. Steve King of Iowa said if the deal is true, the “Trump base is blown up, destroyed, irreparable and disillusioned beyond repair. No promise is credible.”
After much waffling, Trump last week said he would follow through on his campaign promise to end DACA. But the president, who has often expressed sympathy for Dreamers, first gave Congress six months to come up with a legislative solution.
The news of a deal with Democrats drew swift condemnation from conservatives, including from media outlets and pundits that have traditionally bolstered the president. Breitbart News, helmed by former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, featured headlines including “Amnesty Don” and “Dems declare victory as Trump caves on DACA.”
Conservative commentator Laura Ingraham was similarly critical of the reported deal, slamming the president in a series of posts to her Twitter account. “‘BUILD THE WALL! BUILD THE WALL!’…or…maybe…not really,” Ingraham wrote online Wednesday night.
“When does American working class w/out real wage increase in 15yrs & who send their kids to overcrowded public schools get amnesty?” Ingraham asked on Twitter on Thursday morning.
Trump spent all day Wednesday talking about cutting such a deal, floating a similar framework while huddling with bipartisan members of the House Problem Solvers Caucus. Three sources in the room from both sides of the aisle said Trump suggested he would accept new border security measures for a fix of the Dreamer program he sought to rescind — and that he’d let his demands on the wall pass, for now.
One lawmaker present said Trump specifically suggested he could accept the DREAM Act, which includes a path to citizenship for those who migrated to the U.S. as minors.
“He said, ‘We got to get the wall done, but maybe we could do them separately,’” one person in the room told POLITICO on Wednesday afternoon, several hours before Trump’s meeting with Democratic leaders. “He said maybe we do border security, but maybe not the wall.”
The sources briefed on the meeting declined to estimate how much border security would be provided under the plan or what the specifics would entail, a key part of any agreement, given the wide range of possibilities that border security could contain. This spring, Congress approved more than $1 billion in new border security.
The leaders and the president also did not agree on when such a package would be passed; both chambers of Congress are controlled by Republicans. But one person briefed on the meeting said Trump and the Democrats want it done “sooner rather than later.”
Another person at the Problem Solvers Caucus meeting earlier Wednesday said: “He’s not giving up on the wall, and we’re not giving up on the wall. But it doesn’t have to be on DACA.”
Trump may still push for the border wall in a spending bill in December, according to congressional Republican aides, but White House staff publicly backed off that path this week as well. Instead, Trump focused on cutting a deal with the political opposition on DACA.
In an earlier meeting between House leaders, Pelosi told Ryan that Democrats want to see action on DACA in the next few weeks — a deadline most congressional Republicans consider unrealistic.
House Republican leaders insist they have six months, until March, to codify protections for Dreamers. But Democrats want to see a legislative solution by Oct. 5, the deadline for current DACA recipients whose permits expire during the six-month period to renew their applications.
The meeting with Schumer and Pelosi kicked off with a long discussion about trade and China, a second aide briefed on the meeting said.
Heather Caygle contributed to this report.