Finally, Trump said he’d sign whatever immigration bill Congress could send him. “I’m not saying I want this or I want that. I will sign it,” he told the group.
By the time the president finally kicked reporters out of the meeting, he had said yes to everyone while clarifying virtually nothing. And what was undeniably a victory for government transparency had turned into another frustrating experience for Republicans, who repeatedly implored Trump to tell them exactly what he would accept in a DACA bill.
“I’m not going to support a bill unless you support it,” Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, an erstwhile-Trump-critic-turned-ally, bluntly told the president at one point. “You have created an opportunity, Mr. President, and you need to close the deal.”
In the four months since the president first suggested to Democrats that he would support a trade of permanent protections for Dreamers in exchange for enhanced border security, he has wavered on the details. At times, he’s backed the hardline demands of his senior adviser, Stephen Miller, and conservative hawks in Congress who want both a border wall and separate measures to tighten interior enforcement and limit legal immigration. Other times, Trump has suggested those debates could be saved for later.
Both sides of the president were on display on Tuesday. He talked at length about the need for a border wall and an end to “chain migration,” but he also called for “a bill of love” in rhetoric reminiscent of a vanquished Republican rival, Jeb Bush. While presidents have held meetings with lawmakers in public before—Barack Obama held a daylong health-care summit in 2010—they tend to be rather staid affairs replete with prepared statements and rote talking points. But Tuesday’s confab was different, because Trump did not tell the lawmakers he planned to keep the press in the room. As a result, they had few talking points to fall back on, forcing them into a more candid exchange with the famously freewheeling president. It felt, at times, like a real negotiation.
And in a display that came days after Trump felt it necessary to proclaim his fitness for office and call himself “a very stable genius,” he held forth in a way that demonstrated he has a basic understanding of the immigration issue but is not conversant on the details and jargon that lawmakers have been negotiating on and off for years. When Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein of California suggested that Congress first pass “a clean DACA bill now” and then pivot to a more comprehensive proposal, Trump eagerly agreed. “I would like that,” he replied. “I think a lot of people would like to see that.”
Suddenly worried that Trump had softened his position, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy jumped in. “Mr. President, you need to be clear,” he told Trump, politely but firmly. He reminded him that the broad agreement had always been DACA plus border security, not on its own, and that Democrats had all voted for enhanced border security in the past. Within a few minutes, Trump had shifted back once again, talking about the need for a DACA bill to also address the diversity visa lottery and “chain migration” so that granting legal status to Dreamers does not reopen the pipeline of illegal immigration through extended family sponsorship.