Senior Democrats stunned Washington on Wednesday by claiming that they had agreed with Donald Trump on a plan to protect so-called Dreamers, young immigrants who were brought illegally to the US as children.
Senator minority leader Chuck Schumer and House counterpart Nancy Pelosi, who dined with the president at the White House, said they had reached an agreement to quickly enshrine into law protections for the nearly 800,000 immigrants who benefited from Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (Daca) programme.
A person briefed on the meeting said Trump agreed with the Democrats to pair the bipartisan Dream Act, which provides a path to permanent residency for undocumented immigrants brought to the US illegally as children, with some form of border security – excluding Trump’s promised border wall.
It was not immediately clear what specific border measures would be included. Immediately after the announcement from Pelosi and Schumer, the White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, tweeted that there had “certainly not” been an agreement excluding the wall.
In response, Schumer’s spokesman said that Trump said he would “continue pushing the wall, just not as part of this agreement”.
Two sources briefed on the meeting said that no one from the White House press office was inside the room.
Schumer and Pelosi said in a joint statement: “We had a very productive meeting at the White House with the President. 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.
“We also urged the president to make permanent the cost-sharing reduction payments, and those discussions will continue.”
After the dinner, a White House official was more non-committal than the Democrats, saying: “President Donald Trump had a constructive working dinner with Senate and House minority leaders, Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi, as well as administration officials to discuss policy and legislative priorities. These topics included tax reform, border security, Daca, infrastructure and trade.”
As reports of the agreement surfaced, conservatives suggested they had been betrayed by Trump.
“ ‘BUILD THE WALL! BUILD THE WALL!’…or…maybe…not really,” tweeted Laura Ingraham, a right-wing radio host and soon-to-be Fox News anchor.
Steve King, one of the most steadfast opponents of immigration reform in Congress, addressed his tweet to the president stating that if reports were true, “Trump base is blown up, destroyed, irreparable, and disillusioned beyond repair. No promise is credible.”
The news was welcomed by at least one pro-immigration Republican lawmaker, Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona, who tweeted: “Kudos to @POTUS for pursuing agreement that will protect #Dreamers from deportation”.
Immigration has long been a polarizing issue on Capitol Hill, exacerbated in recent years by the anti-immigrant sentiment that has swept over the Republican base. Multiple versions of the Dream Act have been thwarted by conservative opposition. But a bipartisan pair of senators, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Dick Durbin of Illinois, unveiled a yet another version of the legislation in July.
Then, on 5 September, Trump left the fate of hundreds of thousands of Dreamers hanging in the balance with a decision to terminate Daca. The 2012 Obama-era programme had granted them temporary status, enabling them to study or work without fear of deportation.
Trump announced that the programme would be phased out over six months.. In a rare statement, Obama dubbed Trump’s decision as lacking in “basic decency”.
Faced with swift and overwhelming backlash from both parties, Trump suggested the same day he might “revisit” the issue if Congress failed to resolve the status of Dreamers through legislation.
It was Trump who extended the invitation to Schumer and Pelosi, according to a source familiar with the meeting, to follow up on their discussion last week of the numerous fiscal deadlines facing Congress.
Trump, a businessman whose book was entitled The Art of the Deal, ruffled feathers last week when, meeting leaders from both parties in the Oval Office, he sided with Schumer and Pelosi on a three-month extension to the debt ceiling – something Ryan had dismissed as “ridiculous” only hours earlier.
Then, on Air Force One, he seemed amenable to bipartisan cooperation on Daca, saying: “Chuck and Nancy would like to see something happen, and so do I.” At Pelosi’s request, he tweeted a message of reassurance to Dreamers that they would not be deported in the next six months.
Liberal activists have urged Schumer and Pelosi to be cautious when negotiating with Trump.
Speaking earlier on Wednesday, Neil Sroka, communications director for the progressive political action committee Democracy for America, said: “Trusting this narcissist in the White House, who just weeks ago was trying to equivocate on white supremacy, runs a real risk for Democrats. Being seen palling around with Donald Trump is not a risk-free endeavour. But in dangerous times like these, Democrats have an obligation to do what it takes to achieve our agenda, and that involves taking risks sometimes.”
Earlier on Wednesday, Huckabee Sanders was asked about the absence of Republican Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell and House speaker Paul Ryan from the dinner hosted by Trump. “I think it’s pretty disingenuous for people to say he’s only meeting with Democrats,” she said.
“The president is the leader of the Republican party and was elected by Republicans. He beat out 16 other candidates to take that mantle on, and certainly, I think, is one of the strongest voices. And so the idea that the Republican party ideas are not represented in that room is just ridiculous.”
The American people elected Trump because they were tired of business as usual, Huckabee Sanders added. “They wanted somebody who would break up the status quo, that would bring people from both sides of the table together to have conversations.”
Like Trump, Schumer is from New York, prompting some commentators to suggest that they have a personal chemistry that the president lacks with McConnell or Ryan.
Speaking before Wednesday night’s deal, Sidney Blumenthal, a former senior adviser to President Bill Clinton, said: “Both Schumer and Trump are outer borough boys from New York: they’re very different but speak the same language.”
Blumenthal added: “Trump doesn’t despise Schumer and Pelosi but he does hate McConnell and Ryan. He feels they have humiliated him. Trump’s central motive is revenge for perceived humiliation.”
Trump dined with the Democratic leaders in the Blue Room of the White House, according to a source. The first 30 minutes of the meeting focused on trade issues pertaining to China.
Trump sat at the head of the table, the source said, with Pelosi to his right and Schumer to his left. A total of 11 people attended the dinner, including several cabinet officials: homeland security secretary John Kelly, treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin, commerce secretary Wilbur Ross, and budget director Mick Mulvaney. Gary Cohn, the director of the national economic council, and Marc Short, the White House director of legislative affairs, were also at the meal.