White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly told Democratic lawmakers Wednesday that some of the hard-line immigration policies President Trump advocated during the campaign were “uninformed,” that the United States will never construct a wall along its entire southern border and that Mexico will never pay for it, according to people familiar with the meeting.
The comments were out of sync with remarks by Trump, who in recent days has reiterated his desire to build a border wall that would be funded by Mexico “indirectly through NAFTA.”
Trump amplified this stance Thursday in back-to-back tweets that called the North American Free Trade Agreement “a bad joke” and asserted that reworked trade deals with Mexico would somehow pay for the wall “directly or indirectly.”
“The Wall is the Wall, it has never changed or evolved from the first day I conceived of it. Parts will be, of necessity, see through and it was never intended to be built in areas where there is natural protection such as mountains, wastelands or tough rivers or water,” Trump wrote.
“The Wall will be paid for, directly or indirectly, or through longer term reimbursement, by Mexico, which has a ridiculous $71 billion dollar trade surplus with the U.S.,” Trump continued. “The $20 billion dollar Wall is “peanuts” compared to what Mexico makes from the U.S. NAFTA is a bad joke!”
The mixed signals underscore the difficulty congressional Republicans have faced as they have tried to decipher what the president wants in an immigration deal. And they have contributed to tensions over how to resolve the legal status of immigrants, known as “dreamers,” brought to the country illegally as children.
“I’m looking for something that President Trump supports, and he’s not yet indicated what measure he’s willing to sign,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told reporters Wednesday. “As soon as we figure out what he is for, then I would be convinced that we were not just spinning our wheels going to this issue on the floor, but actually dealing with a bill that has a chance to become law and therefore solve the problem.”
During a closed-door session at the Capitol with members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), Kelly repeatedly said that Trump supports enacting permanent legal protections for dreamers and that he has helped the president evolve on immigration policy. But the meeting ended with no resolution to what exactly the administration wants in exchange for authorizing permanent legal protections for the at least 690,000 people enrolled in the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that Trump ended last year, according to several attendees.
“The president is committed to a permanent solution to DACA,” Kelly said at the meeting.
Later in the day, Trump struck a tougher tone.
In an interview with Reuters, the president called a bipartisan deal worked out by Sens. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) and Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) “horrible” and “very, very weak.”
“It’s the opposite of what I campaigned for,” Trump told Reuters.
The immigration debate was thrown into chaos last week after a tense meeting at the White House between Trump and lawmakers where the president, according to several people familiar with his remarks, expressed anger at a proposal from Durbin and Graham to allow in immigrants from what he called “shithole” African and Latin American countries. He then questioned why more of a priority wasn’t being put on attracting immigrants from Norway and Asian countries.
By the end of Wednesday, Kelly confirmed his comments to Democratic lawmakers but attempted to play down any differences with the president while describing him as a willing negotiator.
“He has evolved in the way he looks at things,” Kelly told Fox News. “Campaign to governing are two different things, and this president has been very flexible in terms of what’s in the realm of the possible.”
He also expressed confidence that an agreement on DACA could be reached soon.
“There’s no doubt in my mind there’s going to be a deal,” he told Fox. “So long as men and women on both sides are willing to talk.”
As the meeting with Democrats began Wednesday, Kelly said he had asked to meet with the group at the urging of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who told him that the group is critical to reaching a deal.
Hoyer told Kelly later that the views expressed by lawmakers in the room represent “the will of the Democratic Caucus” — a reminder that House Democrats overwhelmingly support protecting dreamers and strongly oppose Trump’s calls for stricter border protections.
In a bid to assure the group that he understands their concerns, Kelly said Hispanic Caucus members should be grateful that DACA wasn’t ended immediately in September, when Trump set a six-month expiration date for the program, according to several people familiar with his remarks.
“I worked to get the six-month extension of DACA. I ordered that. I managed that. And everyone has thanked me for that,” he told the group.
Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Calif.), the original sponsor of the Dream Act, which would permanently legalize dreamers, asked Kelly to clarify Trump’s definition of a border wall.
“Certain things are said during the campaign that are uninformed,” Kelly said, according to several attendees.
Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) later put out a statement that Kelly said Trump’s views were “not fully informed.”
“Kelly went on to say that many campaigns are not fully informed about every policy and that campaigning and governing are two different things and that governing is harder,” Gutierrez said.
“A concrete wall from sea to shining sea” is not going to happen, Kelly said according to attendees. Instead, “a physical barrier in many places” is what the administration is requesting. Kelly used the term “physical barrier” several times during the meeting, attendees said.
“Concrete wall is not a realistic solution in many places,” Kelly said — noting that topography, among other issues, makes building a physical wall difficult along certain parts of the more than 2,100 miles between the United States and Mexico.
Instead, “we need 700 more miles of barrier,” Kelly said — a concession that a physical barrier does not need to stretch the entire length of the border.
“Concrete wall would be good in only certain places,” he added, saying that manpower and drone technology should suffice in some parts.
Kelly also said that there will be no wall “that Mexico will pay for.”
Later in the Fox interview, Kelly confirmed that the administration is seeking 700 miles of new wall and reiterated Trump’s view that the United States would be able to use a renegotiation of NAFTA to get Mexico to pay for the wall.
“In one way or another, it’s possible that we could get the revenue from Mexico, but not directly from their government,” he said.
After serving as homeland security secretary and commander of U.S. military forces in Latin America, Kelly told lawmakers that he has helped Trump “evolve on issues of the wall.”
“I had a lot to do with that,” he said of Trump’s change in position regarding border security, according to attendees.
“He campaigned against DACA,” Kelly said of Trump, but since then, “he’s lightened up.”
Kelly said that the Trump administration continues to push for more border security in part because cartels are still successfully moving illegal drugs across the Mexican border.
“Drug cartels will always find a way to get their drugs in so long as there’s demand in the U.S.,” Kelly said.
As the conversation continued, Hispanic Caucus members asked Kelly for his assessment of a bipartisan plan brokered by Durbin, Graham, Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and others. One Democrat in the room told Kelly that Graham has secured the support of at least 10 Republican senators — a sign that the plan might succeed.
But Kelly seemed unimpressed by the deal, attendees said, telling the group that Graham and Durbin have always agreed on immigration matters. What would be more impressive, Kelly suggested, is if Hispanic Caucus members worked with conservatives like Sens. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and David Perdue (R-Ga.) and Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, who introduced a conservative-backed proposal to retool immigration policy last week.
Aides to Graham did not respond to requests for comment about how many GOP senators are sponsoring the immigration plan. But Durbin told reporters Wednesday that at least six Republicans will publicly sponsor their plan once it is formally introduced as legislation.
Later Wednesday, Graham and Flake announced that their proposal would be sponsored by Sens. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Mike Rounds (R-S.D.).
Hispanic Caucus members asked Kelly what he thought of another bipartisan deal introduced Tuesday by Reps. Will Hurd (R-Tex.), Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.) and other members. The measure would provide legal protections for dreamers and authorize funding for border security that would be a mix of wall, fencing, security technology and more manpower.
Kelly said he knew nothing about the bill — a comment that stunned attendees, because Hurd and Aguilar have spent weeks amassing 50 original sponsors from both parties.
Once the issue of dreamers and border security is resolved, Kelly said during the meeting, he expects the administration and Congress to work together on the future of people with temporary protected status. In recent weeks, the administration has announced the end of temporary protections for hundreds of thousands of people from El Salvador, Haiti and Nicaragua who are living in the United States after natural disasters or violence in those countries.
As the meeting ended, one longtime Hispanic Caucus member sought to make peace with Kelly.
Gutierrez, a vocal opponent of Trump and outspoken proponent of a comprehensive immigration overhaul, apologized directly to Kelly for comments he made in the fall.
In several appearances and interviews, Gutierrez called the former Marine general “mean,” a “hypocrite” and “a disgrace to the uniform he used to wear” because he supported the end of DACA.
Seated next to Kelly, Gutierrez apologized, and Kelly accepted the apology.
“We all say or do stupid things,” Kelly told the group.
As Kelly got up to leave, he turned again to Gutierrez, squeezed the congressman’s right shoulder and thanked him again for the apology.
“It means a lot,” Kelly told Gutierrez.