WASHINGTON - White House Chief of Staff John Kelly told Democratic lawmakers Wednesday that the United States will never construct a physical wall along the entire stretch of the U.S.-Mexico border and that some of President Donald Trump's campaign promises on immigration were "uninformed."
The comments put Kelly at odds with Trump, who repeatedly said during his presidential campaign that he would build a border wall that Mexico would pay for, not U.S. taxpayers. Kelly's statements also reinforce the chaos and indecision over immigration policy that has plagued the White House for several months since Trump announced the end of an Obama-era program protecting young immigrant "dreamers" in September.
Democrats and Republicans have warned in recent days that Trump is not clearly stating what he wants as part of a deal to replace the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and bolster security along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Kelly's comments, made in a closed-door session at the U.S. Capitol with members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., also show that senior administration officials know that Trump will not be able to fulfill two key campaign promises - the construction of a wall along the southern border that is paid for by Mexico.
In a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal, Trump said that Mexico would pay for the wall through the North American Free Trade Agreement. But Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, who succeeded Kelly in the role, did not answer questions at a Senate hearing on Tuesday about whether the administration has a plan for Mexico to pay for the wall's construction.
In his fourth face-to-face meeting with members of the Hispanic Caucus, 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 program, according to several attendees.
"The president is committed to a permanent solution to DACA," Kelly told the meeting.
This account of the meeting is based on notes taken by two lawmakers in the room that were confirmed by two more lawmakers in the room and one senior aide in attendance.
White House officials didn't immediately return requests for comment.
As the meeting began, Kelly said he had asked to meet with the group at the urging of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who has been in frequent contact with Kelly over the last several months and 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.
Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif., who chairs the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, also attended the meeting.
In a bid to assure the group that he understands their concerns, Kelly said that 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.
"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 that would permanently legalize at least 690,000 dreamers, asked Kelly to clarify Trump's definition of a border wall.
"Certain things are said during the campaign that are uninformed," Kelly said.
"One thing is to campaign, another thing is to govern. It's really hard," he added later.
"A concrete wall from sea to shining sea" is not going to happen, Kelly said. 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."
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.
"He campaigned against DACA," Kelly said of Trump, but since then, "he's lightened up."
Kelly and Nielsen have been privately complaining about Trump's campaign promise to build a wall as ill-advised since their early days in the administration, when Kelly was homeland security secretary and Nielsen was his senior adviser, according to a person familiar with their discussions.
During the meeting, Kelly said that the Trump administration continues pushing for more border security in part because cartels are still successfully transporting 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. He then added that leaders of drug cartels "are very smart and good businessmen."
That comment piqued the interest of several lawmakers in attendance, who said later that they found it odd that Kelly would credit cartel leaders who often authorize murders as smart or good businessmen.
As the conversation continued, Hispanic Caucus members asked Kelly for his assessment of a bipartisan plan brokered by Sens. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., 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 proposal on immigration reform last week.
Aides to Graham did not respond to requests for comment about how many GOP senators are co-sponsoring the immigration plan. But Durbin told reporters Wednesday that at least six Republicans will publicly co-sponsor their plan once it is formally introduced as legislation.
Hispanic Caucus members asked Kelly what he thought of another bipartisan deal introduced Tuesday by Reps. Will Hurd, R-Texas, 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 some attendees, because Hurd and Aguilar have spent weeks amassing 50 original co-sponsors from both parties.
Emerging from the meeting, Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., described the exchange as "a regurgitation of both sides, but I didn't get a sense that the administration has a clear bottom line that gets us to where we need to be."
Rep. Adriano Espaillat, D-N.Y., added that after weeks of believing that Congress must pass a stand-alone bill that legalizes the status of dreamers, the Hispanic Caucus now supports bipartisan plans to formalize their status and enact changes in border security. The new proposal by Hurd and Aguilar and the bipartisan deal brokered by senators "are the two pathways that we feel are probable to resolving these issues."
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.
But Kelly's comments signaled to members present in the room that Kelly doesn't fully comprehend how TPS works.
"We have to figure out who the heck is still here," Kelly said. "Where are the great Central Americans? How many of them are dead? How many of them went back?"
People living in the United States with TPS must register with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and provide basic information on their place of residence, and marital and employment status. But they are not required to check in regularly with the agency to update their status or if they are moving back to their home country.
As the meeting ended, one longtime Hispanic Caucus member sought to make peace with Kelly.
Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., a vocal opponent of Trump and outspoken proponent of comprehensive immigration reform, 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.
BURBANK, Calif. - The Overwatch League christened its inaugural season this month in largely the same ways as any professional sports league's opening day. The very best players in the world donned uniforms representing their teams. Fans packed an arena, purchasing licensed merchandise in addition to concessions. And announcers broadcast the action for hundreds of thousands more watching at home.
The setting was consistent with a big league pro football, basketball, baseball, soccer or hockey event, but the competition here was a team-based video game, and the new league is the latest development bringing competitive gaming, familiarly known as eSports, closer to the mainstream.
The audience for eSports has surged in recent years and major investors have followed, including owners of traditional sports franchises seeking to reach a young audience traditional sports increasingly miss. Annual revenue has grown more than 40 percent over the past two years and is quickly approaching $1 billion, according to market research firm Newzoo. The International, the major tournament for the game Dota 2, featured a total prize pool of $24 million, with the tournament winners landing $10.8 million. Newzoo projects the total audience for eSports will approach 590 million worldwide by the year 2020.
So when a new league was being formed around Overwatch, a first-person shooter game, many investors couldn't wait to pay $20 million apiece to buy a franchise. Those included New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, Stan Kroenke (Los Angeles Rams), Jeff Wilpon (New York Mets), Andy Miller (Sacramento Kings) and Comcast Spectacor (Philadelphia Flyers).
"It was one of the few times that we committed at the first meeting," said Kraft, who, along with his son Jonathan, owns the OWL's Boston Uprising. The Krafts, like other pro team owners, had been waiting to find a way into the eSports phenomenon. Not having found the right play, they decided to help build a new league. It was the same path they had taken with Major League Soccer as owners of the New England Revolution.
Sports teams, such as the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers of the National Basketball Association, the New York Yankees of Major League Baseball, and European soccer club Paris Saint-Germain have all sunk money into League of Legends eSports franchises and other popular gaming titles. Ted Leonsis, owner of the Washington Wizards in the NBA and Washington Capitals in the NHL, also owns Team Liquid, one of the more prominent franchises in the eSports world.
Major League Soccer announced last week it will launch an eSports league centered around the popular FIFA soccer video game, a similar undertaking to the NBA's upcoming league based on the NBA 2K franchise.
ESports has been something of a siren call to investors with its tantalizing metrics, but it also came with nascent, messy competition and business structures. That's something the OWL sought to correct. Like other major sports, the league has city-based franchises, salaried players and shows its video game characters in "jerseys," called skins by gamers, during league play.
"The city-based part is about capitalizing on a lot of those great rivalries in traditional sports between cities," the league's commissioner, Nate Nanzer, said.
The league has 12 franchises based around the world in cities such as New York, Dallas, Paris, Seoul and Los Angeles. The hope among Activision Blizzard, which operates the OWL, league owners and players is that these new concepts will help broaden the audience by allowing new fans to more easily follow game play and identify with teams.
"People like being part of something where they have local affiliation," said Steve Kaplan, co-owner of the NBA's Memphis Grizzlies, the English Premier League's Swansea City club and the OWL's Los Angeles Valiant.
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The demographics hold great appeal to investors outside of the sports world, as well, with the OWL featuring several owners with Hollywood ties.
"It's one of the issues the movie business struggles with the most: 'How do we reach people under 30?' This is a business built on people under 30," said Rob Moore, a former vice chairman of Paramount Pictures and current general manager and president of the OWL's Los Angeles Gladiators.
The OWL requires players to engage with fans for a specified amount of time by streaming their game play on outlets such as Twitch, which is owned by Amazon. (Amazon's founder and chief executive, Jeffrey Bezos, also owns The Washington Post.) Many players first achieved fame playing the game on Twitch or YouTube, and the interaction is one reason for eSports' success.
And while the long-term viability of the OWL remains an open question, the owners are optimistic.
"League of Legends Championship Series has a bigger player base, a proven track record, massive viewership and is selling out stadiums," said Bryce Blum, executive vice president of Catalyst Sports & Media, an advisory firm in the eSports space. He also represents some franchises and broadcasters in the Overwatch League as a lawyer. "But Overwatch is a new game, so it's nowhere near its full potential as far as tactics, player base and game development."
Blum cites various metrics when he says the "inevitable" mainstreaming of eSports has already arrived.
"Traditional sports will learn a heck of a lot more from eSports," he said, considering how many teens and people in their 20s are digital natives and prefer streaming to traditional cable packages.
The live stream of the OWL's opening day averaged 408,000 viewers per minute on Twitch, with another 29,000 streaming it on the Activision Blizzard-owned MLG.tv, according to the league. The first NFL Thursday night game streamed on Twitter in 2016 averaged 243,000 viewers per minute, while the first NFL game streamed on Amazon this past September averaged 372,000. NHL games available via Yahoo averaged a per-minute audience of 336,000. While the streamed NFL and NHL games are also available via traditional TV broadcasts, OWL's games were not available on linear television in Western markets.
A day before the league opened, Twitch announced it had secured streaming rights to the OWL. The deal is for two years at a reported $90 million.
"The revenue streams are the same as in any major sport. There is clearly tremendous interest in a very valuable demographic, with relatively young people who have relatively high incomes," Kaplan said.
Peter Levin, the president of interactive ventures, games and digital strategy for Lionsgate Entertainment, pointed to the ability of the co-investors of his franchise, the Los Angeles Valiant, to promote their product at traditional sports venues, which his investing partners own.
Robert Kraft, chairman of the NFL's broadcast committee, as well as Jonathan Kraft, chairman of the league's digital media committee, are equally bullish on future TV and streaming rights, seeing the recent Twitch deal as only the beginning.
"For the first time, this is a league that's globally based," Jonathan Kraft said.
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As strange as filling a stadium to watch people play video games might be to older generations, Moore quickly found it to be on par with watching any other competition, after his college-age son introduced him to the culture.
"You play basketball, you like to watch basketball, you like to talk about basketball," Moore said. "You play Overwatch, you like to watch Overwatch and see the best people play. It's the same dynamic." There are more than 35 million Overwatch players worldwide, according to Blizzard, the game's producer.
Jeff Kaplan, the game's lead designer and vice president of Blizzard Entertainment, said Overwatch was intended to be as watchable and understandable as possible, while also making sure it offered sufficient challenges to players.
"People don't give video games the benefit of the doubt," Kaplan said. "All pro sports require some level of buy in. When I take people to hockey games, I have to explain icing and offside 20 times before they get it."
All matches during the inaugural season of the OWL will be played in Burbank at a location that was previously the soundstage for NBC's "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson." On opening day the setup was akin to a slick TV game show, but the sellout crowd, numbering 530 according to the league, gave off a feel similar to a small, but anticipated, college basketball game. Other eSports events - such as the League of Legends World Championship, draw spectators numbering in the tens of thousands. That event has sold out Madison Square Garden, Staples Center and, most recently, Beijing's Olympic Stadium, a facility that seats 80,000.
The scene Wednesday in Burbank included play-by-play and color commentators, called casters. Outside, fans bought up the merchandise that included OWL-branded jackets selling for $99, jerseys ($60) and hats ($35).
"It's my first time in an arena like this, and it's super polished," William Bao, a 21-year-old video game designer, said as he looked over the jackets. "I was like,'Wow, it's super legit.' It just feels fresh. It feels like watching sports."
Ashwin Bhandari, 19, enjoyed seeing star players he knew from Twitch and YouTube. Although he is from San Francisco, he was buying Seoul Dynasty gear, owing to his support of Seoul's players.
The Krafts are realistic about where the league stands and perhaps where it could go.
"When you've grown up in this country with ball and stick sports, it's hard to fathom it at first," Jonathan Kraft said. "While they might not need the cardio and physical strength of an NFL player, they need hand-eye coordination and fast-twitch hand reflexes. You have to develop an appreciation for what the game is.
"They are athletes, it's just a different definition," he said, adding that the same level of teamwork and checked egos that has driven the success of the Patriots will be needed to secure wins in the OWL, as well.
"Culturally, it's hard at this point to put [eSports players] in that [celebrity] category, but I do believe, five, 10 years from now, that's the way it will be," Robert Kraft said. "They will be personalities that will be revered the same way. . . . If they are good."
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Smith is a multimedia journalist and TV docuseries producer based in Los Angeles. His work is online at noahble.com.