Political News

A Brief Anatomy of Trump’s Immigration Meeting With Lawmakers

Posted January 9, 2018 11:19 p.m. EST

West Wing met The Apprentice on Tuesday when President Donald Trump presided over an extraordinary meeting, later broadcast on television, of lawmakers from both parties debating policy in the Cabinet room. On the table: immigration.

Over the course of about 55 minutes, members of both the House and the Senate discussed how best to protect unauthorized immigrants who arrived as children, and whether to embrace a path to citizenship for millions of other immigrants. Trump gave his endorsement to a plan for broad changes, even as the lawmakers debated a narrower deal that could be reached sooner.

Here are some dramatic moments from the meeting.

— First of all, take a look at who was around the table.

The president often invites the congressional leadership to the White House for difficult negotiations. Tuesday’s meeting was something different — a gathering that did not include leaders like Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the majority leader, or Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., the minority leader in the House.

Instead, Trump invited a collection of lawmakers from both parties who have been deeply involved in the immigration fight for years. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., has long been an advocate for a comprehensive immigration overhaul, while Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., has been a fierce critic of efforts to legalize unauthorized immigrants. Sen. Richard J. Durbin III, D-Ill., has fought to legalize the Dreamers, who were brought to the United States illegally as children. Sens. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., and Jeff Flake R-Ariz., have been part of a small group trying to negotiate an immigration deal for months.

— Lindsey Graham dared Trump to support a ‘pathway to citizenship’ even if it means getting hammered by the right.

Graham has always been a blunt-spoken proponent of a comprehensive immigration overhaul, often sparking fury from conservative hard-liners. But in Tuesday’s meeting, his embrace of a “pathway to citizenship” for 11 million unauthorized immigrants undercut conservatives in the room by prodding Trump to publicly endorse that idea for the first time.

Graham, who was a fierce opponent of Trump during the campaign, has chosen to cozy up to the president in the hopes of making progress on the issues he cares about. On Tuesday, he all but challenged the president to be strong enough to resist the critics in his own party on immigration — and it may have worked.

— ‘I’ll take the heat’: Trump signaled interest in a comprehensive reform deal after DACA.

The president displayed bravado in his response to Graham, vowing repeatedly to “take the heat” from conservatives by embracing a comprehensive immigration overhaul that would include a path to citizenship for millions of immigrants. But he may not realize how much political trouble he has invited.

Republicans like former President George W. Bush and Sen. John McCain of Arizona have done the same in past years, only to relent in the face of furious opposition from conservative voters and activists. On Monday, the president admitted that he hasn’t been a politician as long as the others sitting at the table.

That lack of experience — and the commensurate battle scars — may lead him to underestimate the reaction from his core supporters and some members of Congress to what conservatives will portray as “amnesty” for people in the country illegally. Trump is a president who watches hours of conservative television programs and scours right-wing websites. The message on immigration may be: traitor.

— Moments of agreement offered hope for a deal, even as the details could unravel negotiations.

In a city where gridlock has been the norm for years, Tuesday’s extraordinary meeting underscored a rarity in Washington — moments of partisan agreement. The exchange between Trump and Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, was such a moment, as the Republican senator admitted that he would vote for a path to citizenship.

That declaration prompted Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, one of the top Democrats in the House, to say he agrees with Grassley. It’s not clear that such agreement could survive a negotiation in which the details often matter more than a broad consensus.

But even Trump appeared encouraged by the momentary agreement: “When was the last time that happened, Chuck?” Trump asked the Iowa senator.

— ‘Poison pills’ threaten to derail immigration negotiations even before they start, Democrats said.

Ask anyone who was part of previous immigration fights and they will talk about poison pills — demands that were introduced with the knowledge that the other side could never accept them. Even amid the general sense of agreement on Tuesday, it was clear that poison pills could scuttle any deal. Democrats warned that Republican demands for an end to “chain migration” would “be an impediment to agreement.”

The president’s response? He urged the Democrats to “negotiate” on those issues, and to bring him a deal once it’s worked out. The message from the president seemed to be: if lawmakers can avoid the pitfalls that have doomed previous negotiations, he won’t be the one to scuttle it in the end. “I’m not going to say, ‘Oh gee, I want this, or I want that,’” he said. “I’ll be signing it.”

— As Democrats pushed for a ‘Dreamer’ deal with no strings attached, Republicans insisted on dealing with other issues.

For Democrats at Tuesday’s meeting, their strategy became crystal clear: try to convince Trump to agree to legalize the Dreamers without any strings attached. Pushing other issues — like a border wall — to a later negotiation could clear the way for a quicker deal to replace Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the Obama-era program that had protected immigrants brought to the country illegally as children.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California tried to pin the president down on just that point, and seemed to be succeeding until Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the House majority leader, realized what was happening and jumped in.

In the remarkable exchange with the president and Feinstein, the majority leader clearly feared that Trump was about to give away their leverage by agreeing to consider issues like chain migration at a later time.

Trump’s response suggested that he was missing the nuances, but by the end McCarthy appeared to have some success in reminding the president that Republicans should press for conservative immigration priorities in exchange for a Dreamer deal.

— With a budget fight looming, Sen. David Perdue warned against grand ambitions for an immigration deal.

For some Republicans, like Sen. David Perdue of Georgia, the best path forward is a narrow one — a deal to legalize the immigrants brought to the United States as children in exchange for added border security and a few other issues.

Perdue made that case, urging Trump to hold back any grand ambitions for comprehensive immigration legislation that could get bogged down in a lengthy debate. The motivation may be the looming budget fight, which could lead to a government shutdown if lawmakers in both parties can’t reach agreement.

Republicans like Perdue understand that a difficult and extended debate on immigration could threaten the budget talks in a pivotal election year, when he and his colleagues will have to face voters in November.