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Story highlights

The longtime opponent of DACA pushed for an end to the program

Trump outsourced the announcement after expressing displeasure with his options

(CNN) —  

When the time came for the Trump administration to announce it was ending DACA on Tuesday, there was a familiar face at the podium. But it wasn’t the President, it was Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

It’s no surprise to anyone who has followed Sessions’ career that he would take an opportunity to criticize DACA or announce its end. But President Donald Trump’s outsourcing of the official announcement to Sessions was evidence of how central a role the attorney general played in the decision to end the program – and Trump’s aversion to announcing that decision himself.

The longtime opponent of DACA pushed for an end to the program in what was described as a “tug-of-war” among the President’s advisers in internal White House deliberations, according to an official familiar with the talks.

Sessions argued the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that protects nearly 800,000 undocumented immigrants brought to the US as children would be unlikely to withstand a promised court challenge from 10 state attorneys general, led by Texas. Sessions was instrumental in convincing Trump the courts would block the program, another government source said.

In front of the cameras on Tuesday, Sessions sounded much like his old self. When he served in the Senate as a GOP senator from Alabama, he was one of the chief critics of DACA after former President Barack Obama put it into place.

“Simply put, if we are to further our goal of strengthening the constitutional order and the rule of law in America, the Department of Justice cannot defend this type of overreach,” Sessions said. “There is nothing compassionate about the failure to enforce immigration laws. … The compassionate thing to do is end the lawlessness, (and) enforce our laws.”

At least some officials at the Justice Department suspect, according to a source familiar, that Sessions was at least sympathetic to the attorneys general who brought the lawsuit. A senior Justice official flatly denied any communication between Sessions and the states, but shortly after the threat was issued in June, Sessions spoke favorably of the effort on Fox News.

“I like it that our states and localities are holding our federal government to account expecting us to do what is our responsibility to the state and locals and that is enforce the law,” Sessions said.

But it was the lawsuit threat that ultimately helped push Trump to act on DACA. The states demanded Trump sunset the program by September 5 or they would add it to ongoing litigation about another Obama-era policy, an attempt to expand DACA and apply it to parents. The courts already blocked that program from going into effect, and many legal scholars agree that the same courts would likely be unfavorable to DACA. After Trump’s announcement Tuesday, Texas filed for a dismissal of the case.

Meetings intensified in recent weeks as Trump faced the deadline. The deliberations inside the White House were like a “tug-of-war” among the President’s advisers, officials said, adding that Trump was so unenthused about the decision that he outsourced the announcement to Sessions, who remains out of favor with Trump.

Two officials familiar with the intense West Wing deliberations said the President asked chief of staff John Kelly to find some kind of middle ground, hoping to put the decision as far away from the Oval Office as possible, and “share the burden” with Congress.

“No one is happy with this outcome – including the President,” one official said, saying it was a prime reason Sessions was selected to make the announcement.

White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said Tuesday that Sessions was chosen to make the announcement because of the legal analysis that went into it.

“It’s in large part a big part of the legal process,” Sanders said. “This was deemed illegal by, I think, just about every legal expert that you can find in the country, including many of Obama’s own attorneys said that this was not a lawful program. And therefore, it would be the Department of Justice to make a legal recommendation and that’s what they did.”

The Trump administration ultimately announced a plan to stop allowing any new applications for DACA as of Tuesday, but it will allow any DACA recipient whose permit expires by March 5, 2018, to apply for a renewal. That move is designed to give Congress six months to act to preserve the program legislatively.

But the President has signaled he does not intend to take a lead role in that effort, despite saying he hopes Congress will act. Already lawmakers including 2013 immigration reform veteran Republican Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, and Jeff Flake of Arizona, have said it would be more helpful if the White House would explain what it might sign into law.

Releasing only a written statement on Tuesday, after the announcement had already been made, Trump’s relative quiet on the issue was an about-face from the campaign, during which he pledged to immediately rescind DACA. Since the election, however, Trump spoke of his sympathy for DACA recipients and kept the program intact, issuing new permits up until Tuesday.

Asked about his move in brief remarks ahead of a meeting at the White House on Tuesday afternoon, Trump put the onus on Congress to find a resolution, saying he still has sympathy for the plight of DACA recipients.

“I have a great heart for these folks we’re talking about,” Trump said. “I have a love for these people and hopefully now Congress will be able to help them and do it properly. And I can tell you, speaking to members of Congress, they want to be able to do something and do it right. And really, we have no choice, we have to be able to do something, and I think it’s going to work out very well.”

And then Tuesday night, with a new tweet, Trump opened door to further executive action.

“Congress now has 6 months to legalize DACA (something the Obama Administration was unable to do). If they can’t, I will revisit this issue!”

CNN’s Jeff Zeleny, Joe Johns, Evan Perez and Ariane de Vogue contributed to this report.