A 's-show': Relationships fray in immigration fight
Posted January 16, 2018 12:56 p.m. EST
Updated January 16, 2018 4:13 p.m. EST
WASHINGTON (CNN) — The now-infamous Oval Office meeting on immigration, in which President Donald Trump made vulgar disparaging remarks about certain countries, laid lingering tensions bare on Tuesday as two senators openly criticized the White House and Trump's advisers.
Sens. Lindsey Graham and Dick Durbin, who presented a compromise immigration plan to Trump, called out the President's staff, saying they are blocking a deal.
"This has turned into an s-show and we need to get back to being a great country," Graham, a South Carolina Republican, said during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.
At one point, Graham even spoke directly to Trump, as if he was watching, to appeal to him to reconsider his rejection of their bipartisan proposal on immigration and the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Talks have seemingly broken down since the blowup and fight over Trump's use of the word "shitholes" to describe some African countries.
"Close this deal," Graham said.
It marked a sudden change in fortune for Graham and Trump, who in recent months had been increasingly close and frequent golf partners.
The two senators may have been trying to talk past the President's advisers, including chief of staff John Kelly and senior adviser Stephen Miller, a hard-liner on immigration.
Graham said there is still a way to reconstruct an agreement but said "somebody on his staff gave him really bad advice."
Trump was "not well served by his staff," Graham told reporters. Asked about Kelly specifically, he called him a good man but noted that he is a member of the staff, and added that some at the White House have "an irrational view."
Durbin, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, told reporters that he believed Miller had played a role in convincing Trump to blast the bipartisan deal.
"It's hard to find any effort to kill immigration legislation that doesn't have Steve Miller's fingerprints on it. He's been an outspoken foe of immigration reform and opponent to DACA and the Dreamers from the start," Durbin said.
In an interview with CNN's Jake Tapper, Durbin said that during last Thursday's meeting to present the deal, the White House brought in five other members of Congress "to refute any assertions ... that this was good policy."
'What happened between 10 and 12'
Graham, at the hearing, spoke about his and Durbin's side of the meeting, saying that last Thursday morning around 10 a.m., Durbin, his longtime negotiating partner in immigration reform, called him to say he had the best phone conversation with the President he'd ever had and was exceedingly optimistic about reaching a deal. Graham said he set up a White House meeting.
But by the time they arrived, Graham said, the winds had changed, hardline conservative lawmakers had been invited, and the President made the now-infamous "shithole" countries remark.
"What happened between 10 and 12?" Graham asked. "(At a previous meeting) Tuesday, we had a president that I was proud to golf with, call my friend, who understood immigration had to be bipartisan, you had to have border security as essential, you have border security with a wall, but he also understood the idea that we had to do it with compassion. I don't know where that guy went. I want him back."
Durbin told CNN that Trump had appeared more open to the kind of bipartisan compromise on immigration his group was working on, but Miller was in the back of the room.
"At the Tuesday meeting, he was at the back, writing notes and passing them to Tom Cotton who is his man in the Senate. We know his role. We know both of their roles," Durbin said.
Deal on the ropes
At the Judiciary Committee hearing, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen repeated that she didn't hear the word "shithole" being used, but remembers an "impassioned" conversation with "tough language."
Nielsen defended Trump's rejection of Durbin and Graham, saying their proposal for $1.6 billion for a border wall and $1.2 billion for technological investments was not enough.
Nielsen said that border security would require closing "loopholes" in the law -- a hardline overhaul the White House has sought to be able to go more aggressively after undocumented immigrants and deport them.
Durbin and Graham both said, however, that the President had said in the previous meeting he agreed in keeping a first deal on DACA narrow enough, saying more comprehensive change would happen afterward.
Durbin reiterated this to Nielsen, saying to "put the entire burden of immigration reform on the shoulders" of DACA recipients was "unfair."
But Nielsen had back-up from a former negotiating partner of Durbin and Graham's, North Carolina Republican Sen. Thom Tillis, who took a thinly veiled swipe at the two of them for meeting as a small group and presenting an unworkable compromise.
"I actually want a solution for DACA," Tillis said. "I actually want people to start acting reasonable instead of creating ad hoc 'gangs' and trying to get something done that's simply not going to get done. ... We need to get people in a room and actually solve the problem."