Washington — Few issues have animated President Donald Trump’s ardent supporters more than his pledge to build a wall along the nation’s Southern border. Now, Trump’s decision to put that promise aside — at least temporarily — while he pursues a deal with Democrats to protect young immigrants brought to the country illegally may test the limits of that loyalty.
Some avid Trump backers praised the president as a pragmatist trying to make deals with whomever he can. But others recoiled at the prospect of Trump joining forces with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi on immigration, and seeming to get little in return.
“Many supporters of the president wonder whether our king has been captured and (White House chief of staff John) Kelly and a clique of generals and their globalist friends are now governing,” said Roger Stone, a longtime informal adviser to Trump. His comments reflected the growing concern among some Trump backers about the diminished presence of nationalist advisers in the West Wing.
The worries were sparked by Trump’s startling efforts to forge consensus with Schumer and Pelosi — “Chuck and Nancy,” as the president has cozily referred to the Democratic duo — over the fate of nearly 800,000 people brought to the U.S. illegally as children. Trump, Schumer and Pelosi discussed the matter at a private White House dinner Wednesday night.
On Thursday, top lawmakers, White House officials and Trump himself squabbled over whether an agreement had been struck to protect the immigrants — and if so, exactly what it was.
In face of an intense backlash from conservatives inside the Capitol and out, Speaker Paul Ryan and other GOP House members adamantly insisted that there was no agreement to enshrine protections for the immigrants brought to America as children and now here illegally.
John Cornyn of Texas, the No. 2 Senate Republican, put it this way: There was “a deal to make a deal.”
Trump himself said he was “fairly close” to an agreement that could protect the young “Dreamers” while also adding border security, as long as his long-promised wall with Mexico was also separately addressed. Pelosi and Schumer insisted there was discussion and even agreement on legislation that would offer eventual citizenship to the immigrants in question.
“We agreed it would be the DREAM Act,” Schumer told reporters, referring to a bipartisan bill that would allow immigrants brought here as children and now in the U.S. illegally to work their way to citizenship in as little as five years if they meet certain requirements.
What was clear was that the outcome for the “Dreamers” themselves was still unresolved and subject to much further debate and negotiation — and that the politics of immigration, which has defeated Congress for years, remained as tricky and explosive as ever. After winning the White House on a campaign that was remarkably harsh toward immigrants and revolved around construction of an enormous wall along the entire border with Mexico, Trump’s sudden pivot infuriated some of his closest allies, and seemed to contain more potential to alienate his base than any of his other unconventional moves.
“He was so explicit during the campaign on the issue of the border wall and border security that if he were to backtrack on that promise I don’t think he’d have a single friend left in the country. Democrats aren’t going to support him and he would lose the entire Republican base,” said GOP Rep. Tom McClintock of California. “This was a core explicit and graphically clear promise he made to the American people.”
But some of Trump’s supporters praised the president for what they see as pragmatism.
“He’s to the point he needs to get something done. The Republican Party has failed him miserably,” said Jeff Jorgensen, the GOP chairman in western Iowa’s conservative Pottawattamie County. “Hats off to him. If you need to cross the aisle to get things done, then cross the aisle.”
While allowing young people who came to the U.S. illegally to stay in the country is broadly popular, immigration hardliners consider it amnesty. As a candidate, Trump vowed to repeal the executive action signed by President Barack Obama allowing the young people to stay. But he’s struggled with the issue as president, often speaking sympathetically about the young immigrants. Earlier this month, he announced that he would rescind their protections in March, but said he wanted Congress to pass legislation protecting them from deportation.
Trump has tested the limits of his supporters’ loyalty before, often to find that they were unshaken by his policy reversals. He failed to fulfill his pledge to repeal Obama’s signature health care law. He’s backed off his tough talk on China, declining to label Beijing a currency manipulator. The United States is still a party to the Iran nuclear deal, despite Trump’s promise to rip up the agreement.
But immigration, and the border wall in particular, hold special resonance with Trump supporters. Some of Trump’s appeal to the white, working-class voters who formed the basis of his voting bloc stemmed from his promises to crack down on illegal immigration. At his raucous campaign rallies, voters often broke out into chants of “build that wall.”
Administration officials quickly recognized the danger in Thursday’s backlash, and the White House shifted into damage control mode, with press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders denying a deal had been struck or the wall excluded from it. Some also wondered aloud whether the president was aware of the minutiae of the DREAM Act legislation discussed on Wednesday, including the fact that it includes an eventual path to citizenship.
“We’re not looking at citizenship, we’re not looking at amnesty. We’re looking at allowing people to stay here,” Trump told reporters as he traveled to view hurricane damage in Florida. “And we’re working with everybody. Republican. We’re working with Democrat.”
“But very importantly, what we want: We have to have a wall,” Trump said. “If we don’t have a wall, we’re doing nothing.”
Despite Trump’s denial, two people briefed on Wednesday night’s proceedings said that citizenship was explicitly mentioned when Democrats raised the DREAM Act. Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, who was among the group dining on Chinese food (a Schumer favorite) in the White House Blue Room, spoke up that the bill does include citizenship, according to the people briefed, who spoke on condition of anonymity to disclose the private proceedings.
Whether or how Trump digested Mulvaney’s statement was unclear. But the posture struck by Ryan and others on Capitol Hill seemed designed to protect the president from a backlash from his conservative base. Ryan energetically disputed the idea that any deal had been struck, though his argument seemed to turn largely on semantic distinctions.
“These were discussions not negotiations, there isn’t an agreement,” Ryan said. “The president wasn’t negotiating a deal last night. The president was talking with Democratic leaders to get their perspective. I think the president understands that he’s going to have to work with the congressional majorities to get any kind of legislative solution.”
For their part, immigrant advocates and Latino lawmakers reacted cautiously, with several saying that any celebration would be premature.
Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., a leader of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, said the caucus hasn’t seen any details, and “we’re not going to trade the protection of Dreamers for the deportation of others.”
“I don’t think the president actually understands what he’s saying half the time,” Gallego said. “So I’m afraid that if you strike a deal with him, that he’ll go back on his word at any point.”
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