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Trump Injects Chaos Into Immigration Debate — Opposing, Then Backing GOP Bill

Jun 15, 2018
Originally published on June 15, 2018 5:05 pm

Updated at 5:43 p.m. ET

President Trump took Capitol Hill by surprise on Friday morning when he said that he would not sign a House GOP immigration bill — only to reverse course later in the day.

"I'm looking at both of them. I certainly wouldn't sign the more moderate one," Trump told Fox News in a previously unannounced interview on the White House lawn.

The comment created a frenzy on Capitol Hill, where House GOP leaders have been working for weeks on legislation aimed at meeting the so-called four pillars of Trump's policy demands on any bill to provide a path to legal status to people brought to the U.S. as children. House Republicans had been working with top White House aides including Marc Short and Stephen Miller to ensure the president's support in the event it reached his desk.

By late afternoon, the White House indicated to House Republicans that the president "just misunderstood" the question and supports the compromise, according to a House GOP source.

Then in the early evening, White House spokesman Raj Shah released a written statement publicly pledging support for two House Republican bills and explaining the mix-up.

"The President fully supports both the Goodlatte bill and the House leadership bill. In this morning's interview, he was commenting on the discharge petition in the House, and not the new package. He would sign either the Goodlatte or the leadership bills," Shah said.

Leaders were negotiating two versions: a conservative proposal crafted by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., and backed by members on the right of the GOP conference, and a bill negotiated by top House Republicans that attempts to bridge the divide between conservatives and centrists.

Several members involved in those talks say they plan to continue negotiations with a goal of voting on both legislative proposals next week.

House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows, R-N.C., told reporters Friday that he believes Trump has an accurate understanding of what is in the draft compromise and is simply pushing for the most conservative bill and not for ending the talks.

"I know there's been ongoing conversations with the administration as early as this morning on the bill," Meadows said. "Listen, you're taking one comment that the president said that he preferred a more conservative bill. That's a consistent theme. At the same time, if a conservative bill can't pass, then everything gets renegotiated."

Members are particularly confused by Trump's statement because Miller had offered conservatives private assurances of Trump's support during a closed-door meeting on Wednesday.

Afterward, he told reporters: "The president has been extremely supportive of what [GOP Reps.] Raul Labrador and Bob Goodlatte and Steve Scalise are doing to unify the Republican Conference. I think both the bills are being finalized right now, but we strongly support what they're doing."

Moderates, in particular, were frustrated by the seeming change of heart. Florida Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart told reporters that they would have "serious problems" if Trump's statement stands. He said the legislation is likely the only chance Republicans will have to pass a bill to fund the border wall and protect immigrants who are in the country illegally after being brought here as children, known as DREAMers.

"I think this the only shot at it," Diaz-Balart said. "It's the only shot I believe to legalize the DREAMers, to stop the deportation of the DREAMers."

Adding to the chaos was Trump's insistence on Fox News that any bill would need to include provisions like money for a border wall and tougher border enforcement. The legislation includes both.

In separate remarks to reporters at the White House, Trump also insisted he wanted to see Congress pass legislation that would end his administration's policy of separating migrant families at the border.

"I hate the children being taken away," he said. "The Democrats have to change their law. That's their law."

The president once again put the blame on the Democrats in a tweet on Friday afternoon, which listed the items he wants included in an immigration bill.

There is no federal law that requires family separation. As part of a Justice Department crackdown on immigration, the Trump administration has imposed tougher border enforcement that now includes separating parents and their children into different detention facilities.

The president reiterated his election-year message that more Republicans will be needed in Congress to enact his immigration policies, which he believes most Americans support.

"We need more Republicans, frankly, and that's why I think we're going to do so well in the midterms," he said.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

House Republican leaders were prepping for a vote next week on immigration legislation that they negotiated with conservatives and moderates, but President Trump threw a wrench into that when he suggested this morning that he didn't support their efforts. NPR's Kelsey Snell has the latest on this and joins us here in the studio. Hey there, Kelsey.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Hi there.

CORNISH: There's a lot of confusion here.

SNELL: Yes (laughter).

CORNISH: Break it down for us. What happened?

SNELL: Well, we started the morning with the president saying that he didn't support the moderate bill. Now, it's important to remember that these two immigration bills - one was being negotiated with a group of moderate Republicans. The other one was being negotiated with some conservatives.

CORNISH: And the White House knew this.

SNELL: The White House knew this. The White House was involved. The White House had staff that were helping write these bills. The president said he didn't like the moderate one, but then about nine hours later, after a daylong scramble in Congress, the White House put out a new statement saying that the president supports both bills and would sign either of them.

Now, that is a really confusing situation to be in if you're House leadership attempting to actually get votes on a bill that you would like to have passed in less than a week. They were supposed to spend most of today doing that, asking these members who's going to vote for what, but they didn't get the chance. And it kind of became a chaotic day.

CORNISH: And as you said, they had hoped to vote on it next week. Is that still the plan?

SNELL: That is still the plan, but that - now that the president has weighed in, that doesn't exactly clear up the confusion because if he's supporting both bills, it makes it very hard for people to kind of figure out where they're going to go. And it puts a lot of pressure on leaders because they now really own this issue of immigration. It had been one of those things where they were fighting between Republicans and Democrats, and this moves it into a space where it is squarely a fight between Republicans about what an immigration bill should do.

And it's particularly important to a lot of these guys, like Mario Diaz-Balart from Florida, who's helping organize the moderates. I talked to him today, and he said this is the best and possibly only chance to get wall funding and other White House priorities passed.

MARIO DIAZ-BALART: It's the only shot, I believe, to legalize the DREAMers, to stop the deportation of the DREAMers and to have a permanent fix for them.

CORNISH: On another issue, the president tried to blame Democrats for the situation on the border where children are being separated from their parents. He claims that it's their fault that an immigration bill hasn't passed. Tease out these two issues. And what are Democrats saying about it?

SNELL: Democrats basically don't have anything to do with this at this point. I mean, this is a matter of the way the Trump administration is interpreting a court ruling. That is how they're deciding to do the family separation at the border.

CORNISH: So it's a policy choice, not a law.

SNELL: It is a policy choice. Now, House Speaker Paul Ryan has said that he would like to pass a law to keep families together at the border, but this is not a partisan issue at this point except for the fact that Democrats don't support the policy. Though it's important to note a lot of Republicans don't support the way the White House is interpreting this.

And again, like I said, this is a big move where Republicans are taking a lot of the political blame here. So if things don't work out, if they don't pass a bill that protects these families or they don't pass an immigration bill at all this year, it will be squarely in the court of Republicans to explain why they couldn't agree within themselves and with the president on getting that done.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Kelsey Snell. Kelsey, thank you.

SNELL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.