Politics

How Donald Trump Shivved a Compromise GOP Immigration Bill

Aides were caught unaware by president's announcement

President Donald Trump greets mostly Republican members after addressing a joint session of Congress last year. On Friday, he appeared to end hopes a compromise immigration bill the conference hammered out would make it to the floor. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Updated 3:03 p.m. Senior White House officials worked with House Republicans for weeks on a compromise immigration measure, but were careful to avoid saying anything publicly that would sink the measure. That changed Friday morning when President Donald Trump walked out to the White House’s North Lawn.

House Republicans reached agreement on a sweeping immigration overhaul measure after conservatives, moderates and leaders negotiated behind closed doors for weeks — with White House legislative affairs director Marc Short also involved. Members said Thursday they had reached a deal to vote on two measures: a measure favored by conservatives and a compromise version in which all sides gave some ground.

House Republicans were eyeing floor votes on both, starting with the more enforcement-heavy measure that has been pushed by House Judiciary Chairman Robert Goodlatte, R-Va., possibly as soon as late next week with votes on the compromise version to come later. That changed Friday morning.

“It sounds like they were going to take a vote on a couple of different bills on immigration probably next week. One of them, the Goodlatte bill, the other is something more moderate. Would you sign either one of those?” Fox anchor Steve Doocy asked him on the North Lawn.

“I’m looking at both of them. I certainly wouldn’t sign the more,” he replied, being cut off by the anchor, but mimicking his description of the compromise measure.

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White House aides later Friday said they were unaware the president was ready to announce his opposition to the compromise measure, with one saying flatly: “It’s his decision. He decides a lot of things on his own.”

A White House official on Tuesday afternoon gave no indication to a Roll Call reporter that Trump and his team were close to a decision on which bill the president might endorse — or if he would even get involved.

The official acknowledged being unsure whether the president had talked with Goodlatte or other members about the House GOP negotiations and the contents of each bill. Trump often calls members on his personal cell phone before and after working hours.

And when asked if Trump intended to speak with House Republicans, possibly with a trip to Capitol Hill, the official left open the possibility, saying with a shrug: “I mean, is he going to gaggle on the plane? Is he going to talk on his way to Marine One? Is he going to tweet?”

The remark showed — again — how Trump often decides policy and other matters seemingly off-the-cuff, leaving his aides scrambling to react and lacking information about why the boss made a specific call.

Less than 24 hours before Trump shivved the compromise bill, his press secretary gave no indication the president supported one of the bills over the other.

“The president has already laid out a proposal that closes the legal loopholes and provides the resources to secure our border,” Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters Thursday. “If the process leads to a permanent solution, as outlined by the president, then we would support it.”

And House Republicans were told a statement of administration policy was being drafted in support of their compromise immigration bill, according to a House GOP source.

What changed? For one, the sun set and rose — and a new news cycle started, including the president’s favorite morning cable news show, “Fox & Friends,” with an anchor on the North Lawn all morning. Or, as former White House chief economic adviser Gary Cohn put it more succinctly on Thursday at the Washington Post when discussing the ever-turbulent West Wing, where policy stances can quickly shift: “Tomorrow’s a different day.”

Indeed, late on Friday, White House staff tried to walk back the president’s statements on live television. 

“The president fully supports both the Goodlatte bill and the House leadership bill. In this morning's interview, he was commenting on the discharge petition in the House, and not the new package. He would sign either the Goodlatte or the leadership bills,” Raj Shah, White House principal deputy press secretary, said in a statement.

But White House officials told Roll Call multiple times before Shah’s statement that Trump’s Fox comments stood.

One White House official said Trump administration officials had had “some discussions” with a House Republicans about his Fox comments.

House Republicans has planned to vote in coming weeks on a conservative immigration measure and a version that represents a comprimse among various factions of their conference. White House officials have been involved in those talks.

The compromise GOP bill would have covered all 1.8 million “Dreamers,” not just the 690,000 or so protected by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program created by former President Barack Obama and teed up for termination by Trump, according to Mark Walker, chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee.

It also would have created a $25 billion pot of funds for border security, including $17 billion for 846 miles of southern border wall and $6 billion for other technologies, the North Carolina Republican said Thursday afternoon. It also called for a pathway to citizenship — something conservatives have long rejected — and ended family-based visa programs for certain relatives of U.S. citizens, according to a discussion draft of legislation circulated among lawmakers Thursday.

But Trump and his top aides want all of the roughly $25 billion they say a U.S.-Mexico border would cost, plus the additional border security funds for things like sensors and more border agents.

The president and his team were focused on trade-related matters before last weekend’s G-7 summit and his Singapore summit with Kim Jong Un as House Republicans began meeting about immigration votes they would cast in a politically charged midterm election year. Now that Trump and his team are back and focusing on domestic matters, the president upended his own party and its deliberations. 

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A few hours after his driveway performance, Trump tweeted that any immigration overhaul legislation, to garner his signature, must include "full funding" for a U.S.-Mexico border wall, end the so-called "catch-and-release" program, terminate both the Diversity Visa Program and family based immigration programs, and "go to Merit Based Immigration."

He ended the post with what amounted to a pep talk for the House Republican conference: “Go for it! WIN!”

Of course, they had been going for “it” for weeks during testy talks — and appeared to have ended their internal stalemate Thursday afternoon. But then the president walked out of the residence to a waiting live cable news camera.

The result? It’s likely back to square one for House Republicans, and White House aides say there have been “some discussions” with the conference about possible next steps.

“House Republicans are not going to take on immigration,” Chief Deputy Whip Patrick T. McHenry of North Carolina said Friday, “without the support and endorsement of President Trump.”

Lindsey McPherson and Dean DeChiaro contributed to this report.

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