White House officials appear to be diminishing the role of Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., as they negotiate an immigration reform deal that can gain traction among Republicans in both the House and Senate.
Graham, who President Trump described as a “great friend of mine” just three weeks ago, has drawn the ire of administration officials after spearheading a proposal with Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., that fell far short of what Trump requested in exchange for a deal to codify the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which the administration set to end in March.
The South Carolina Republican’s comments about two senior White House aides — chief of staff John Kelly and top policy adviser Stephen Miller — have added to the recent strain between Graham and the administration, one source said.
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders took Graham to task earlier this week for his remarks about Miller, calling it “ridiculous” that a senator would go after a West Wing staffer. Graham had described Miller as an “outlier” on immigration and accused the policy adviser of dragging Trump to the Right in negotiations.
“It is almost appalling to me that you have a senator that isn’t stepping up, doing the right thing,” Sanders said of Graham on Monday during an appearance on Fox News. “Look, we want to make a deal on DACA. We want to do these things. And the fact that he’s not part of the conversation to help move that ball forward and is instead attacking individual members of the president’s staff, I think, shows...they’re going to blame people for their own failures. And I think it’s time that they stop playing political games, come to the table, get serious and do their jobs.”
A Republican aide told the Washington Examiner that Graham’s continued involvement in negotiations could jeopardize the chances of striking a viable immigration deal, in part because White House officials are unhappy with him over the comments he made about Kelly and in part because Republican lawmakers are generally skeptical about Graham’s stances on immigration. In addition to his criticism of Miller, Graham suggested last week that Kelly didn't perform well in immigration meetings with senators because the chief of staff "has never closed a deal before, politically."
“Anything that Graham is a leader on is, honestly, dead on arrival in terms of the White House and also in the House,” the GOP aide said. Graham’s immigration views carry a “stigma” because he participated in the Gang of Eight immigration talks in 2013, which produced an unsuccessful bill, and signed his name on to a proposal this month that Trump rejected, the aide noted.
“The problem right now, even more than policies, is the personalities, the people who want to spearhead their sides of the aisle,” the aide said, referring to Graham and Durbin. “I don’t think Graham carries weight in the GOP conference. And not Durbin either.”
White House officials may be even more reluctant to work closely with Durbin in the wake of a controversy over offensive remarks Trump allegedly said during a closed-door meeting with the Illinois Democrat and others on Jan. 11. Durbin publicly accused Trump of describing some African nations as “shithole countries,” a phrase other meeting attendees denied the president used. That breach of privacy could persuade the president to look elsewhere for a Democratic negotiating partner.
“I respect Durbin and the rest of them, but their version of solving this problem is not the president’s version of solving this problem,” said a senior White House aide.
“What Sen. Graham, Sen. Durbin, [Arizona Republican Sen. Jeff] Flake, those kinds of people are doing relative to a DACA bill is just not where [Trump] is, and not where the Senate and the House is,” the senior official said.
Lawmakers and administration officials are scrambling to strike an immigration deal that can extend protections for young, undocumented immigrants before DACA ends on March 5, a deadline the president set back in September. Members of both parties, including the president, have said they want to pass legislation that will permanently shield from deportation current DACA beneficiaries, who were brought to the country illegally as children.
The senior White House aide said Trump is focused on legislation that primarily applies to undocumented immigrants who have already received DACA protections, not the much larger pool of people who were technically eligible for the program but who never entered it or who allowed their status to lapse.
“One of the things we’re hearing now is, ‘Well how about all of the people who could have qualified for DACA?’” the aide said. “We know of 690,000 DACA recipients — not, as Lindsey Graham and Durbin and others would say, 2 million, 4 million, 7 million.”
White House officials “can talk about a larger number” of undocumented immigrants who could be covered by an immigration deal, but decisions about the precise number should come from House and Senate lawmakers, the aide said.
The criteria for which young, undocumented immigrants should qualify for legal status under a DACA deal is not the only point of contention between the White House and the small group led by Graham and Durbin.
Sanders has called the proposal put forward by Graham and Durbin “dead on arrival” at the White House in part because it would make too few changes to so-called chain migration. Hogan Gidley, another White House spokesperson, called Graham and Durbin “completely dishonest” earlier this week because they presented a policy he argued would effectively increase chain migration — a process by immigrants to petition for their extended family members to come to the U.S., who may eventually be able to sponsor their own relatives through family reunification — as a bipartisan solution.
Trump said in a meeting with reporters at the White House on Wednesday that he would favor a policy limiting family-based migration to parents and children of certain immigrants who obtain the legal status required to sponsor relatives. He suggested the White House’s legislative framework would offer DACA beneficiaries a pathway to citizenship in 10 to 12 years, although a senior administration official later attempted to downplay that proposal as something that is merely under discussion.
While Trump said Wednesday that his administration plans to seek $25 billion in funding for a wall along the Southwest border, the Graham-Durbin proposal would reportedly have offered Trump just $1.6 billion to begin wall construction — an amount so small that the White House regarded it as a nonstarter.
Graham and Durbin may no longer be in a position to influence the White House’s thinking on a DACA deal, as the two have seemingly been excluded from talks since they pitched their ideas to Trump. A GOP aide, however, noted Republicans can likely find a way to continue working with Durbin so long as he is able to bring other members of his party to the table.
Although Graham helped convene a bipartisan immigration meeting on Wednesday that involved dozens of senators, two White House aides appeared to have no knowledge of that meeting when asked about it during a discussion with reporters Wednesday evening. Lawmakers decided at the gathering that Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, not Graham, would take the lead on writing the Senate's immigration bill alongside Durbin.
And Graham was not among the six Republican senators who sat down with Trump in the West Wing on Monday to discuss immigration, nor was Flake, another GOP lawmaker aligned with most Democrats on the issue.
Instead, Trump invited a handful of lawmakers that included Republican immigration hawks, such as Sens. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., and David Perdue, R-Ga.
While Trump will spend the rest of the week in Davos, Switzerland, Kelly will stay behind in Washington to work on finalizing the White House’s immigration proposal, a senior administration official said. Kelly will head to Capitol Hill on Thursday to negotiate details of the White House’s legislative framework for immigration reform, which aides hope to release on Monday, the official added.
A spokesperson for Graham declined to specify when the South Carolina Republican had last spoken to the White House.
"The Senate is moving forward," the spokesperson said, noting Graham had released a "very complimentary" statement about Trump's offer of a pathway to citizenship for DACA beneficiaries.
A spokesperson for Durbin did not respond to a request for comment about his level of interaction with the White House since Trump panned his proposal and the "shithole countries" controversy raged.