“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.