The White House hailed a "constructive working dinner" Wednesday night between President Trump and top Democratic congressional leaders, who claimed afterward they agreed to exclude the border wall from a deal on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
Trump and administration officials met with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., the latest in a series of overtures from the president to the other side of the aisle.
A White House official told reporters afterward the "topics included tax reform, border security, DACA, infrastructure and trade." But Pelosi and Schumer focused on DACA, former President Barack Obama's executive action shielding from deportation illegal immigrants who came to the United States before age 16, which was recently rescinded by the Trump administration.
"We had a very productive meeting at the White House with the President," Schumer and Pelosi said in a joint statement. "The discussion focused on DACA. We agreed to enshrine the protections of DACA into law quickly, and to work out a package of border security, excluding the wall, that's acceptable to both sides."
"While DACA and border security were both discussed, excluding the wall was certainly not agreed to," White House press secretary Sarah Sanders shot back shortly afterward.
But a spokesman for Schumer, Matt House, said in response to Sanders, "The president made clear he would continue pushing the wall, just not as part of this agreement."
Trump gave Congress six months to pass a legislative fix for DACA beneficiaries after announcing the phase-out of the program. Immigration hawks inside and outside of Congress hoped it would be paired with border security measures rather than simply a clean legalization bill. Some would regard any backsliding on the wall by Trump as a significant concession.
"This is a positive step toward the president's strong commitment to bipartisan solutions for the issues most important to all Americans," a White House official said. "The Administration looks forward to continuing these conversations with leadership on both sides of the aisle."
Immigration was a key issue for Trump during the campaign and the wall along the U.S.-Mexican border was a symbol of his hardline position. Trump told the New York Times editorial board last year that he realized the power of this promise when crowds chanted "Build the wall!" at his rallies, something he could do to liven things up if his stump speech was falling flat.
"You know, if it gets a little boring, if I see people starting to sort of, maybe thinking about leaving, I can sort of tell the audience, I just say, ‘We will build the wall!' and they go nuts," Trump said. He had more recently threatened a government shutdown if Congress failed to allocate border wall funds and repeated his 2016 insistence that Mexico will ultimately pay for it.
Trump also vowed to get rid of DACA and another Obama-era executive action on immigration that never went into effect. "We will immediately terminate President Obama's two illegal executive amnesties, in which he defied federal law and the Constitution to give amnesty to approximately 5 million illegal immigrants," he said in a major immigration speech during the campaign.
But Trump also expressed sympathy for the people who qualified for DACA, suggesting he was open to a compromise. "Well I always understood that with DACA, we need special heart," the president told the Washington Examiner earlier this year, adding "I am somebody with a lot of heart."
"Just, relax and let's let it all play out," Trump continued. "Because I think everyone's going to be happy in the end." He recently returned to a variation of that theme when he tweeted to Dreamers "you have nothing to worry about," reportedly at Pelosi's urging.
The back-and-forth between the White House and congressional Democrats heightens confusion on where the Trump administration will ultimately come down on a DACA legislative fix.
Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., who has succeeded Attorney General Jeff Sessions as the upper chamber's leading immigration hawk, has called for pairing DACA legalization with E-Verify and limits to chain migration. Trump has endorsed a bill by Cotton and Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., that contains some of these reforms and reduces legal immigration.
"The congressional Democratic leadership has used the DACA class – the so-called ‘Dreamer' amnesty group – as a political football for fifteen years," said Dan Stein, president of the restrictionist Federation for American Immigration Reform, in a statement earlier Wednseday. In order to pass this bill, the Democrats have to be prepared to accept real tradeoffs that respond to the demands of the American people to see our immigration laws enforced and immigration levels reduced."
"Once more we see bad faith," Stein added. "By demanding unconditional amnesty for DACA recipients as well as millions of other illegal aliens who did not even qualify for DACA – while being unwilling to accept anything other than funding for a few more border agents – the Democrats are demonstrating once more that they are happy to just use the DACA class as a political football for partisan advantage."
Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, tweeted afterward that if Pelosi and Schumer's claims were accurate, "Trump base is blown up, destroyed, irreparable, and disillusioned beyond repair. No promise is credible."
Former top strategist Steve Bannon is an immigration hardliner who has left the White House, while advisers seen as more sympathetic to DACA — including Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner and his daughter Ivanka — stay on.
After months of failing to get an Obamacare repeal and replacement bill passed working with Republicans alone, Trump sided with Democratic leaders in a deal on the debt ceiling, keeping the government funded and paying for hurricane relief. This has Republicans worried about what he will do on tax reform, as well as immigration.
"It was a shot across the bows of Republican leadership that he's willing to do whatever it takes to get something done," former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, a leading GOP centrist critic of the party's direction, told the Washingotn Examiner in reference to Trump's recent dealings with Democrats.