'They're cowards': Trump calls out Congress on immigration, fumes 2018 momentum squandered

Anita Kumar and Franco Ordonez, McClatchy Washington Bureau on

Published in Political News

WASHINGTON -- The White House is furious that Congress is squandering precious time to accomplish something Republicans and Democrats have already agreed to do -- protect hundreds of thousands of young immigrants. According to eight people familiar with the situation, the anger is boiling over as time runs out to complete an immigration deal before the calendar quickly shifts to the midterm elections.

White House aides are eager to strike an immigration deal that will include money for a border wall. That would allow President Donald Trump to hit the campaign trail with his biggest goals accomplished: a rewrite of the nation's tax laws, a repeal of the requirement Americans buy health insurance, a reduction in regulations and action to curtail legal and illegal immigration.

Most of those who spoke about the White House's frustrations did so on the condition of anonymity.

"Congress isn't acting because they don't want to do anything difficult," said a former Trump adviser who is in close contact with the White House. "They're cowards. They haven't had an immigration deal in 30 years."

Chief of Staff John Kelly, while secretary of homeland security, "pleaded" and "begged" lawmakers after the inauguration last year to begin crafting a deal, warning them that an Obama-era program protecting so-called Dreamers would be killed by Trump or a judge, a senior administration official said. He visited the Hispanic caucus three times as well as Asian Pacific American and the Senate Democratic caucuses at least once to make his case.

"The fact is that the Trump administration has been trying to solve the goddamn DACA problem since the day it came in," the official said. "Pleading with them. Using those words. Please ... do something about DACA. It's going to go away. And then it went away."

Trump announced in September he would phase out the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, March 5.That gave Congress six months to pass a legislative fix. The White House has been in dozens of meetings with lawmakers from both chambers and parties since then but so far, they have not been able to agree on a broader immigration compromise, including the wall funding, even though both parties long since agreed to protect Dreamers.

"John Kelly has been very open that he has been telling members of Congress for six months or eight months that they have to fix this, even when he was back at homeland security," said former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who is an informal adviser to Trump. "I think he probably feels very close to furious that the administration gets blamed by a bunch of people who can't get the job done."

Some speculate that Trump is criticizing Congress as part of his strategy to deflect blame for the failure to act on this issue. He berates Congress -- usually Democrats -- on Twitter nearly daily about the lack of progress on a deal. On Tuesday, he repeatedly called for a government shutdown if Congress fails to reach a spending deal by Thursday's deadline that also tightens immigration laws.

"If we don't change it, let's have a shutdown," Trump said. "We'll do a shutdown and it's worth it for our country. I'd love to see a shutdown if we don't get this stuff taken care of."

Democrats have insisted on using a broader budget agreement that would lift previously imposed spending caps and partially fund Trump's promised border wall as part of any deal to protect Dreamers.

The House passed a bill Tuesday, days before the government runs out of money, to fund most federal agencies until March 23. But on Wednesday, Senate leaders reached an agreement on a two-year budget deal that would increase spending but without money for a border wall or protections for Dreamers. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California immediately said she would not agree to a budget deal that did not come with the pledge of a debate on Dreamers.

So, potentially back to Square One even though the pact agreed to by both parties would lift statutory budget limits by more than $200 billion and provide tens of billions of dollars in disaster relief funding.

"If it takes fixing DACA to get a border wall then they're frustrated," said a second former Trump adviser who is in close contact with the White House.

The White House wants to finish immigration and tackle another issue, perhaps a $1.5 trillion plan to repair the nation's highways, airports, dams and bridges, before lawmakers turn their attention to the midterm election. The longer the immigration saga drags on, the longer it will take to pivot to other issues and the fall midterms.

"They want to get this done with and be done with it," said Scott Jennings, political director for former President George W. Bush who is close to the Trump White House. "It makes it hard to move onto other things."

Democrats quickly retort that they have twice struck a tentative agreement with Trump to protect Dreamers in exchange for increased border security only to have Trump back out. The White House says Trump has been clear he wants a larger immigration package that includes drastic cuts to the number of immigrants who could be sponsored by family and the diversity lottery program that awards green cards to immigrants.


"My view up until recently has been, 'No, no, you people need to work this out,' " the administration official said. "That is what the U.S. Congress is supposed to do. Finally, I went to the president and said ... we need to get something out there. Your position."

Trump is pushing Congress to abide by his March 5 deadline but five Republican congressional aides familiar with the negotiations say lawmakers feel less urgency now. That's because a legal challenge has forced the administration to resume taking applications for temporary, renewable work permits for DACA recipients. If the Supreme Court takes the case, it could rule in June, leading to a lack of urgency to reach a deal next month.

"There's a drop in temperature in the need to do this," said a senior GOP aide. "The deadline isn't as much of a deadline."

Chris Chmielenski, director of content and activism at NumbersUSA, which pushes for immigration reductions, is in touch with negotiators and agrees the deadline has become fuzzy. "I don't think anyone thinks March 5 is the hard deadline anymore."

Kelly told reporters this week that he would not recommend extending the deadline but three people in close contact with the White House said they think Trump would extend it by a month or two if he thought lawmakers were getting close to a deal.

"The president is a dealmaker," said the first former Trump adviser. "If he feels both sides are close I wouldn't be surprised if the president extended it."

Trump suggested last month that he would consider it. "If we need a little more time, we'll take a little more time," he told CNBC.

That was then, before exasperation set in.

Frustration, though, goes both ways€" and Congress has pushed back on the White House by blaming Trump for waiting too long to release his own proposal and for criticizing lawmakers instead of working with them. "They haven't shown a lot of urgency," a senior GOP aide said.

Besides, congressional aides say, Congress needs time to craft agreements because of the sheer number of people involved in the process. Plus they have been busy with one major issue after another for months, from health care to tax cuts to spending bills.

"They may express consternation with it but ... this is a pretty regular legislative process for Congress," said a second senior House GOP aide, adding that Congress is working faster on immigration than it did on tax cuts.

In the House, members are attending a series of meetings on the immigration proposal with the most support, House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte's bill, which incorporates more enforcement measures than the White House plan. In the Senate, some members are working toward a compromise while others are putting the White House proposal into the form of a bill.

"That's a tried and true strategy to blame Congress," said the first aide said. "There are only so many things Congress can do at one time."

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