When President Donald Trump sat down to discuss a potential immigration compromise with the leading Democrats in the House and Senate, eight other people sat with them, including senior aides. One person who wasn’t there was Trump’s own senior policy adviser, Stephen Miller, according to a source familiar with the dinner.
Miller has made it his life’s work to push a hardline, more restrictive position on immigration. And his absence from the table portended the type of discussion that was to come. Over Chinese food in the Blue Room of the White House with Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, Trump agreed to reach a tentative framework: he would pledge to sign a bill granting legal protections to DACA recipients, in exchange for Democratic support for certain border security measures that do not include funding for his big, beautiful wall.
Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the president’s press secretary, claimed that Miller was not caught off guard by the “deal” or “agreement”. But the senior aide was certainly not in the inner loop. Nor were—once again—Republican leaders on Capitol Hill and the president’s fired-up, anti-immigration, hard-right fan base, many of whom had voted for Trump based off his promise to kill programs like the one President Obama had put in place via executive action to give legal protections to undocumented minors.
Miller, in many ways, has been their voice and champion inside the White House. His professional reputation is built largely on his hostility toward not only illegal immigration, but legal immigration. He, along with Attorney General Jeff Sessions, was instrumental in advising and pushing the president to terminate DACA in the first place, only to watch that effort come apart over a plate of home-cooked Chinese food.
By Thursday morning, sources say, Miller was in discussions with Hill offices in an effort to ensure conservative policy gains in any prospective deal his boss might cut. He had also begun mulling ways to nudge Trump toward reversing course on enshrining DACA protections.
It could be a tall task. The president, sources say, has been thrilled with the developments of these two weeks of deal-making with Democratic Party leaders. It was Trump who conceived of the idea of hosting a dinner with congressional Democratic leaders—two sources saying that he pitched the proposal to Schumer during a recent gathering of lawmakers to discuss New York-New Jersey infrastructure. An aide to a Democratic lawmaker who met with Trump recently, said the president “felt very comfortable” in the setting, “more comfortable working on a bipartisan deal than anything else.”
According to three West Wing officials, Trump has been upbeat and reveling in the media and cable-TV coverage that he and his temporary partners across the political aisle have received lately. One White House adviser said they could hardly remember the last time Trump seemed “this pleased for” a sustained, consecutive number of days while in office.
“We got used to the new normal of chaos. Maybe [the] new new normal is betrayal for really no reason,” one Republican close to Trump told The Daily Beast on Wednesday night, just hours after Democrats announced that they had hashed out an initial framework for a “deal” with Trump.
The White House comms shop did not respond to questions regarding this story. Others spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not cleared to discuss private deliberations.
While Trump may be reveling in the glowing punditry, he risks depressing his base. For a number of hardline immigration groups and members of Trump’s nationalist followers—forces for which Miller is a leading voice in the White House—the DACA agreement was an embrace of the longtime right-wing immigration non-starter: “amnesty.”
The White House vehemently denied that the president had done any such thing. But the Trump’s spokespeople struggled throughout Thursday in defining the contours of a deal they might find palatable.
The president “will not be discussing amnesty,” but will explore “legal citizenship over a period of time,” White House spokeswoman Lindsay Walters told reporters on Thursday morning. Pressed on how exactly the White House defines the term, Walters said, "I'm not going to sit here and litigate what the definition of amnesty is.”
Trump himself rejected the label on Thursday, insisting. “We’re not looking at citizenship, we’re not looking at amnesty,” he said. But what Walters had articulated is precisely what many immigration hardliners and hawks believe constitutes “amnesty” — which critics of the emerging agreement between Trump and congressional Democrats quickly noted.
Breitbart News, the pro-Trump publication run by former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, blared the headline “AMNESTY DON” across its homepage on Wednesday evening. On Thursday, the site prodded Trump for correcting a reporter who dubbed the legalization of DREAMers “amnesty.”
Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, said a legislative package that allows DREAMers to remain in the country would almost certainly meet his definition of amnesty, which he defined as “anything that results in somebody gaining an advantage by having broken the law, even if it entails a slap on the wrist like a fine or having to learn English.”
But Mehlman suggested that a revamped version of the DREAM Act, DACA’s failed legislative precursor, wouldn’t necessarily earn his group’s opposition if it included a host of other measures to not just crack down on illegal immigration but limit legal immigration, as well. Those measures include not just “demonstrable border security,” but mandating employers’ use of technology to verify the immigration statuses of its employees, an end to “sanctuary cities” that spurn federal immigration enforcement, and legislation known as the RAISE Act, which would limit the issuance of U.S. green cards.
Democrats will almost certainly reject the inclusion of many of those proposals in a DACA deal. But Republicans may insist that they be in the final measure, lest the wrath currently being directed at president by his own allies be turned towards them.
“If we're not getting a wall, I'd prefer President Pence,” Ann Coulter, the Trump-boosting conservative columnist and commentator, lashed out on Thursday morning.