President Donald Trump on Tuesday evening addressed House Republican lawmakers on immigration, only to leave the conference with members grappling with the same issues as before.
For House GOP leadership, it was nothing short of a victory.
Speaker Paul Ryan had invited Trump to meet with the conference in the hopes the president would rally skeptics behind the leadership’s so-called “compromise” bill on immigration, scheduled to reach the floor as early as Thursday. There was no expectation, of course, that Trump would change hearts and minds about the substance of the bill. Rather, leadership saw the president as their only hope for giving conservatives cover to vote for what many of them have referred to as “amnesty lite.”
Yet as is traditional with this freewheeling president, the goalposts had changed just before the meeting. As recently as this morning, Trump told lawmakers that he was dissatisfied with leadership’s proposal, according to multiple Republican sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to be frank. Which meant that Ryan and his ilk had gone from hoping that Trump would give their bill his full-throated endorsement, to praying that he wouldn’t rip it to shreds.
“The president was very firm in explaining why it’s so important that he gets this bill to his desk, so we can solve some major problems,” Majority Whip Steve Scalise told reporters after the meeting.
Based on conversations with multiple lawmakers during and after the meeting, Trump’s address—in which he hopped from “topic to topic,” according to one senior GOP source, including taxes, health care, and North Korea—did not necessarily move leadership any closer to the 218 votes they need to pass the bill. Yet the president hadn’t panned the bill—and that alone was worth celebrating.
The fact that House leaders deemed the meeting a success underscores one of the central paradoxes of this presidency: Trump’s decision to speak on a piece of crucial legislation often leaves lawmakers bracing with fear. Rather than expect this president to explain the nuances of a bill to members on the fence—causing them to view their policy quibbles differently, perhaps—leadership often merely hopes he’ll leave the room without making news. In other words, Trump’s potential to carry a piece of legislation over the line is minimal; his ability to implode all progress is great. It’s a stark departure from administrations past, in which the president frequently served as a star voice for his party’s legislation, acting as a crucial go-between for warring camps.
“Every time President Trump weighs in on a bill and doesn’t cause complete chaos in the Republican conference should be considered a win by leadership,” one senior Republican aide told me. “However, the question on this bill is less about what the president says today, and more about what he will say after the bill passes. I still don’t think anyone knows the answer to that.”
The conference took place amid severe backlash against Republicans for the administration’s “zero tolerance” policy, which has allowed for the separation of thousands of families along the U.S.-Mexico border. Trump and others have attempted to falsely blame Congress for the policy, and specifically congressional Democrats. In the room on Tuesday, according to three sources paraphrasing the president, Trump told lawmakers that family separations were a “dangerous issue” and “sad situation.” “The images are bad for us,” he added, urging members to “get one of the bills passed.” Both pieces of legislation would ensure that families could not be detained separately.
Yet passing leadership’s compromise bill, or Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte’s more conservative immigration package, appears just as heavy a lift as ever. In the meeting, Trump indicated to lawmakers that he would sign whichever of the two bills reached his desk, according to the three sources. That either bill would reach his desk in the first place, of course, is somewhat magical thinking, as the Senate is unlikely to act even if the House manages to pass something. But by giving equal weight to both bills, Trump offered no new incentive for conservatives to abandon their concerns and throw their support to the compromise legislation.
“Immigration is controversial. It’s an issue of great emotion and passion, so we don’t know if we’ll have the votes,” Representative Carlos Curbelo said. Curbelo, a leading moderate voice for immigration reform, added that regardless of either bill’s fate, he supports “ending the policy” of family separation “immediately,” calling it “yet another” “reckless decision by” Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Many conservatives, including House Freedom Caucus co-founder Jim Jordan, continue to blanch at a special pathway to citizenship for DACA recipients. The question of citizenship has long stymied progress on immigration legislation in the Republican conference. Trump used his conference not to litigate the issue, however. Instead, he offered the blanket assurance that he was behind the conference “1,000 percent,” adding that both a border wall and DACA fix “polled really highly.” He then used the rest of his time to discuss an “overview of accomplishments,” according to one GOP lawmaker.
Even with both bills unlikely to pass, leadership was unable to articulate an alternative path forward for family separations. Whether the House is willing to act on the issue separately remains to be seen.
Scalise dodged the question. “I’m an optimistic person,” he said. “I’m looking forward to the whip and we’re gonna have work to do like we do with any major bill.”