Caitlin MacNeal contributed reporting.
After news broke Wednesday night that President Donald Trump had tentatively promised Democratic leaders that he will sign into law the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program without demanding funding for a border wall in return, all hell broke loose in the far-right, anti-immigration wing of the GOP.
Some excoriated the president for siding with Minority Leaders Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) over members of his own party and breaking key campaign promises on immigration while others bent themselves into pretzels attempting to defend their mercurial leader.
“We need as much compassion for American citizens who will lose their jobs to illegal aliens who are given amnesty as we give to illegal aliens who are given amnesty,” Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL) huffed Thursday morning, adding that he would likely not vote for the deal Trump struck with Democrats.
“It’d have to be a whole lot more than just building a wall if I were going to give amnesty to illegal aliens who are going to take jobs from American citizens and suppress the wages of American citizens by artificially inflating the labor pool,” he said.
Several Republicans lawmakers, including Rep. Steve King (R-IA), warned that Trump will see his popular support crumble if he continues to side with Democrats on DACA and the border.
“There’s only one thing that cracks president Trump’s base and that’s if he cracks on immigration,” he said. “I know the people that are strong Trump supporters that were on his bandwagon early on. They came onboard because ‘build a wall, enforce the border, no amnesty ever,’ and if they see amnesty coming out of the White House, that’s the one thing that will crack his base. They are loyal Trump supporters but the most important plank in that platform is the rule of law. And if that’s blown up here in these negotiations whether it’s his intent or not, then they’re not going to support him.”
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) agreed, telling TPM that he’s “nervous” that “President Trump has reversed himself or compromised himself into oblivion.”
Many GOP lawmakers, however, appeared to be moving through the stages of grief when they heard the news of Trump’s DACA wavering, beginning with denial.
“No. I find it hard to believe. I don’t think so,” said Rep. David Brat (R-VA) of the tentative deal to give approximately 800,000 young immigrants a path to citizenship. “That was the issue of the year, the forgotten man, the American worker, wage rates. It’s why he won in the Midwest. It was contingent on that set of issues. It’s hard to believe he’s going to say, ‘Whoops! I’ve flipped 180 on the seminal issue of our campaign.'”
Brat, who rode an anti-immigration groundswell to Congress in 2014, insisted that the media “probably isn’t getting the story straight” about Trump’s meeting Wednesday night with Pelosi and Schumer. When presented with the president’s tweets confirming Democrats’ account of the meeting, Brat moved on to the stage of anger.
“If you do the amnesty part first, that’s instant, and then conservatives will never get what they want,” he railed. “I mean, American workers’ wages have been flat for 40 years. That’s why everybody’s ticked off.”
Brat, who unseated then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) in large part by attacking him over supporting a path to citizenship for young immigrants, then moved onto bargaining.
“There could be an agreement,” he allowed, “but it’s still gotta go through the House and Senate.”
Asked if he considers the emerging deal—the DREAM Act plus border security funding minus “the wall”— a form of amnesty, Brat demurred.
“There’s no good answer I can give you as to what they’ve been talking about,” he said.
To be fair, the account of “what they’ve been talking about” became still more muddled Thursday as Trump, his White House communications team, and Democratic leaders all gave conflicting accounts of what was promised.
Trump at first tweeted Thursday that his administration was pursuing “new renovation of old and existing fences and walls” on the U.S. Mexico border instead of funding for a new border wall, which he promised would come “later.” But just a few hours later, he told the press pool traveling with him to Florida: “Number one, we have to have a wall,” he said. “If there’s not a wall, we’re doing nothing.”
The president also muddied the waters Thursday on whether he supports the DREAM Act, which goes beyond DACA by offering a path to citizenship.
Amid this confusion, Congress’ immigration hardliners insisted that the president would side with them in the end on mass deportations, no legalization for undocumented immigrants, and a new, complete border wall.
“Nobody knows what was discussed. Nobody knows what the deal is,” Rep. Lou Bartletta (R-PA) told reporters. “But my sense is that the president is going to keep his campaign promises. We owe it to the American people to make sure we have enforcement first, before we have legalization.”
Still, Bartletta and other conservative Republicans defended Trump’s actions, saying their own ineffective Republican leaders were to blame for driving the president into “Chuck and Nancy’s” arms.
“This president doesn’t have any choice but to turn and listen to the Democrats to try to get something done. He came here to get something done, and if the Republicans aren’t going to get things done, he has no choice,” he insisted. “Let’s not criticize that.”