President Trump and congressional leaders agreed Tuesday to pursue comprehensive changes to immigration policy if negotiators can also strike a deal to establish legal protections for some undocumented immigrants while bolstering border security.
"I will take all the heat you want to give me," Trump declared, offering political cover in his quest for a compromise, "and take the heat off the Democrats and the Republicans."
Yet Trump also revealed his changeability on immigration, an emotionally charged issue that has strongly divided Washington for years. Over a meeting that lasted about 90 minutes — more than half of it televised — Trump appeared to contradict himself, at turns professing support for a "clean" bill to protect undocumented immigrants brought illegally to this country as children, reiterating his demands for a border wall opposed by Democrats and professing to support the kind of comprehensive overhaul of immigration policy that has been anathema to conservatives.
All of it left the fate of a deal on DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, uncertain.
"My head is spinning with all the things that were said by the president and others in that room in the course of an hour and a half," said Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), a lead negotiator on immigration policy. But Durbin said he appreciated that the president demonstrated a "sense of urgency."
Among the details that negotiators and Trump left unresolved are which immigrants would be protected in a new deal and the scope of new security measures that Republicans and the president are seeking. That, in turn, leaves wide open the question of whether an agreement can be completed by Jan. 19, the next budgetary deadline that lawmakers must meet to keep the government open.
Democrats are clamoring to include a DACA deal in a spending agreement before Jan. 19. But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Tuesday rejected tying the two issues together.
In the meeting, Trump didn't address whether the DACA deal should be tied to a spending agreement. Instead, he repeatedly expressed confidence that a deal for DACA recipients was within reach ahead of a March 5 deadline he set before work permits issued to nearly 700,000 immigrants under an Obama-era executive action begin to expire.
Meanwhile, Republicans and Democrats emerging from the meeting between Trump and 26 lawmakers said the first round of immigration talks would focus on four major points: settling the fate of DACA recipients; restricting family migration policy, which some conservatives deride as "chain migration"; curbing a diversity lottery system that grants visas to 55,000 people from countries with low immigration each year; and determining how to bolster security along the U.S. border with Mexico.
The Trump administration has called for $18 billion for construction and renovations of hundreds of miles of a border wall, the president's core campaign promise. Democrats and some moderate Republicans have resisted funding a wall at a time when illegal immigration over the Mexico border is at record lows.
Yet even as Trump sought to instill confidence that a deal could be done — suggesting he would defer to Congress over details and sign any bill that reaches his desk — the president's vague promises and often conflicting negotiating positions left both sides uncertain about where he ultimately would come down.
At one point in the talks, Trump seemed to indicate he would support a proposal from Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) for a "clean DACA bill" — one without border security provisions — only to be quickly corrected by House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.).
"Mr. President, you need to be clear, though," McCarthy said. "I think what Senator Feinstein is asking there — when we talk about just DACA, we don't want to be back here two years later. You have to have security."
Trump responded: "I think that's what she's saying."
"No, I think she's saying something different," McCarthy said.
Feinstein clarified: "if we have some meaningful comprehensive immigration reform, that's really where the security goes."
"No," some in the room said.
The lack of clarity led to unusual reactions beyond the White House. Former Florida governor Jeb Bush, who was among Trump's harshest critics during the 2016 Republican primary season, said in a tweet that he was "encouraged" that Trump is seeking a bipartisan deal.
At the same time, immigration hawks denounced Trump, who ran on a hard-line immigration position, for appearing to tack toward the center. Political commentator Ann Coulter, a passionate Trump supporter during the campaign, said Trump's "DACA lovefest" would prove more politically damaging than revelations in author Michael Wolff's new book.
"Trump is playing with fire," said Bob Dane, executive director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, an influential immigration restrictionist group. "Suggesting he'll sign a clean DACA bill and then deal with everything else later is precisely what the Democrats want."
Dane added that if "Trump capitulates," the GOP base "will inflict a scorched-earth policy in the midterms."
Even Trump appeared to acknowledge the confusion, tweeting later Tuesday that a border wall must be part of any DACA deal, "as I made very clear today."
The White House meeting was highly unusual. In a break with normal practice, Trump allowed reporters to remain in the Cabinet Room for more than 50 minutes as he and lawmakers laid out their bargaining positions.
The lone television camera in the room darted back and forth between Trump and lawmakers, who pressed the president for specifics as he challenged the group to "put country before party" and strike a deal.
Lawmakers in both parties have said they were waiting for Trump to specify his demands before the negotiations could move forward.
"Lives are hanging in the balance," Durbin, seated to the president's right, told the group.
Trump announced in September his plans to terminate DACA, but he gave lawmakers a six-month window to pass a legislative deal before the temporary work permits begin to expire at a rate of nearly 1,000 per day. About 122 immigrants a day already are losing their work permits after failing to renew their applications last fall, according to immigrant rights organizations.
But negotiators have been at an impasse over how to proceed. Democrats and some moderate Republicans are eying the Jan. 19 spending deadline as leverage to get a deal done on DACA. But the talks have been deadlocked over Trump's demands for the wall and cuts to legal immigration.
Democrats also have balked at accepting major new border security provisions, saying the administration's call for wall funding is costly and unnecessary at a time when illegal immigration levels have plummeted.
Adding to confusion about a potential DACA agreement, Trump reiterated several times during the meeting that he hoped to pursue a "comprehensive" immigration bill after lawmakers strike a deal on the dreamers. Comprehensive bills addressing work visas and seeking to address the status of the nation's 11 million undocumented immigrants failed on Capitol Hill during the tenures of both Barack Obama and George W. Bush.
Later, Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) pressed Trump to clarify whether his administration's request for border security funding is required in exchange for protecting DACA recipients.
"We can do a great wall — you need the wall," he said, but added later, "I'd like to build under budget, ahead of schedule."
Yet Trump also conceded: "There's lots of places where you don't need a wall because of nature. You've got a mountain and rivers; you got a violent river."
Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), an immigration moderate, called Trump's admission that a wall isn't necessary along every mile "the best part" of the meeting.
"The president actually did a little more explanation of what a wall means to him," Flake said. "It's not a 2,000-mile physical wall. We've been begging him to say this kind of stuff before. It's only 700-800 miles, total."
The bipartisan talks are set to continue Wednesday on Capitol Hill.
House GOP leaders said they will introduce a bill Wednesday offering a purely Republican solution to the DACA dilemma: legal status to DACA recipients alongside a suite of measures that go well beyond the parameters of the bipartisan negotiations.
Two Republicans familiar with the bill say it is expected to include several measures Democrats have roundly rejected, including sanctions for "sanctuary cities" that do not cooperate with federal immigration enforcement agencies.
Another potential complication is how Congress would enact any new immigration deal.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) demurred when asked if Democrats would vote against a spending package if McConnell keeps out changes in immigration policy.
"We expect it to be in the bill," he said.
Mike DeBonis, Maria Sacchetti, David Weigel and Erica Werner contributed to this report.