President Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, faced pointed questions about his plan to overhaul the immigration system in a closed-door meeting with Republican senators Tuesday — and failed to offer solutions to some key concerns, according to GOP officials who cast doubt on the viability of the proposal.
Publicly, senators emerged from their weekly Capitol Hill luncheon applauding the White House senior adviser’s pitch to move U.S. immigration toward a merit-based system that prioritizes highly skilled workers, a task he undertook at Trump’s behest.
But privately, Republican officials said Kushner did not have clear answers to some questions from the friendly audience, prompting Trump’s other senior adviser, Stephen Miller, to interrupt at times and take over the conversation.
A senior Trump administration official familiar with the meeting disputed that characterization, saying that Kushner, Miller and senior economic adviser Kevin Hassett jointly presented the plan as a team.
“This is a detailed proposal that we can unify Republicans around,” the official said. “That gives us a much stronger position to then discuss other things.”
The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to freely discuss what transpired at the meeting.
At one point, Kushner told Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) that his plan would not address Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the program that shields some young undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children from deportation. This left several senators confused because dealing with the “dreamers,” as the group of immigrants is often called, is crucial for securing any Democratic support.
Congressional Republicans and Democrats have struggled to try to reach a compromise on immigration that would address the 11 million immigrants in the United States illegally. Since Trump took office, they have repeatedly failed as the president has embraced a hard-line position and pressed for billions of U.S. dollars to build a border wall that he promised Mexico would finance.
Last week, Trump met privately with a dozen GOP senators at the White House to discuss the plan. Faced with Democratic opposition, the effort was seen primarily as a political document that Trump and Republicans could rally behind.
But some GOP senators left the meeting wondering whether Kushner understood the issue, the GOP officials said. Though some appreciated his efforts, they did not think his plan would advance anytime soon. No senator has stepped forward yet to turn Kushner’s plan into legislation.
“He’s in his own little world,” said one individual familiar with the discussion in the meeting, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to freely describe the session. “He didn’t give many details about what was in [his plan]. . . . And there were a number of instances where people had to step in and answer questions because he couldn’t.”
The White House had no immediate comment on the session. The administration official said the omission of DACA was by design, to “see what we agree on at this time,” with details also left sketchy for a reason: “We aren’t giving details out because we don’t want details to be leaked.”
As he exited, Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) said there was “a lot of encouragement in the room for what they’ve done, a lot of encouragement.” But pressed on how Republicans would get Democrats on board, Kramer laughed and said, “first is getting these guys on board.”
Kushner also has tried to produce a peace plan for the Middle East after decades of fighting by inserting himself into the complex Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Those talks have broken down, however. After Tuesday’s lunch, Senate Republican officials expressed little hope for his immigration effort.
In the session, Kushner said his proposal would create a merit-based point system, and immigrants would have to pass a civics test before they could even get access to the point system. He said Trump would soon give a speech on immigration, a topic his allies say could carry him to reelection in 2020.
But Kushner confused the senators when he said a central principle in his immigration plan would be to unify immigrant families, including mothers and children. Senators were unsure what he meant, though they have in the past pushed back on the Trump administration’s now-ended family separation policy.
When Collins asked about young undocumented immigrants, Kushner said Trump didn’t ask him to address the issue. Kushner said the president wanted to focus on issues that “bring people together,” noting that his bill focused on a merit-based system and border security.
“The president asked us to figure out what we can all be for,” the individual said, summarizing Kushner’s remarks.
Collins confirmed her concerns in a statement to The Washington Post. “I am concerned about the fate of the DACA young people, and they cannot be excluded from any immigration package,” she said.
The GOP officials said Kushner also appeared to struggle to answer Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), who asked how the plan would deal with undocumented immigrants already in the country. The administration official said Cornyn instead offered praise for the plan. A spokesman for Cornyn declined to comment on the private meeting.
At times, Miller jumped in to assist Kushner, especially on questions about how the plan would deal with low-skilled workers. “Miller interrupted him a lot,” the individual said.
The joint appearance of Kushner, who is relatively moderate on the issue, and Miller, an immigration hard-liner, apparently was meant to present a united front to senators who have been frequently vexed by internal White House rifts obstructing policy plans. But the presentation failed to convince many Republicans in the room that real unity was at hand.
Hassett, who heads the Council of Economic Advisers, also tried to assist Kushner with senators’ questions about the economic impact of the plan, specifically related to how it would affect Americans’ wages. Hassett said the plan would generate $600 billion in net federal revenue. Hassett said the White House did an informal score and found that its proposal would raise the average salary for immigrants because they would be bringing in workers with more education and skills.
Even if Kushner had been able to field all their questions, Senate Republicans seemed skeptical that they would do anything with his proposal. While they’ve long wanted to overhaul the immigration system, they know it has to be bipartisan — and Kushner’s proposal would never garner Democrat support.
“I thought it was a very effective presentation,” said Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah). “It would have passed with flying colors among Republicans. But we need to get some Democrats, too.”
Josh Dawsey contributed to this report.