"The wall will come later," Trump told reporters as he left the White House
Trump also said his administration was "renovating ... massive sections" of the wall
For a few minutes on Thursday morning it appeared that Donald Trump – the man who launched his presidential campaign by deriding immigrants and bathed in chants of “build the wall” at campaign rallies – was open to a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants in the United States.
Then the President spoke for himself.
In a series of statements to reporters on Thursday, the White House appeared to be debating itself over what the President would agree to on immigration reform, whether any deal hinged on funding for a wall along the US-Mexico border and what exactly constituted amnesty.
Trump kicked off the internal – yet public – debate as he left the White House for a trip to Florida to inspect damage wrought by Hurricane Irma.
“The wall will come later,” the President said, reflecting on a framework Trump agreed to with the two top Democrats in Congress – Sen. Chuck Schumer and Rep. Nancy Pelosi – over dinner of Chinese food and chocolate pie on Wednesday night. The tentative deal would protect hundreds of thousands of young undocumented immigrants in the United States, would include a border security package but would not fund the wall along the border.
Shouting over the engines of Marine One, Trump said his administration was “renovating … massive sections” of the current barriers along the border, but that “the wall is going to be built (and) it will be funded a little bit later.”
The shift on whether an immigration deal hinged on funding for the wall, something many Trump campaign supporters would have thought to be unheard of while listening to Trump’s white-hot rhetoric on immigrants during the 2016 campaign, shows the President’s desire to strike a deal from the White House and his willingness to work with Democrats to do it.
The confusion continued 30,000 feet, as White House spokeswoman Lindsay Walters told reporters aboard Air Force One that while “the Trump administration will not be discussing amnesty” the President could be open to an immigration deal that “could include legal citizenship over a period of time.”
“The Trump administration will not be discussing amnesty,” she said. “What the Trump administration will discuss is a responsible path forward in immigration reform, that could include legal citizenship over a period of time.”
Pushed on how that wasn’t amnesty in the eyes of Trump’s supporters, Walters demurred and said she would not “sit here and litigate” what constituted amnesty.
Trump has expressed sympathy young people who qualified for the Obama era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals – or DACA – program during his presidency and did so again on Thursday.
“Does anybody really want to throw out good, educated and accomplished young people who have jobs, some serving in the military? Really,” Trump tweeted Thursday.
But the Trump administration’s debate over what the wall and amnesty continued after Trump touched down in Florida, with the President telling reporters that while he is not looking at “citizenship” or “amnesty” for undocumented immigrants, he is “looking at allowing people to stay here.”
He added: “If we don’t have the wall, we are doing nothing.”
The public back-and-forth exemplifies a tightrope the Trump White House is having to walk: The President is so eager to strike a deal from the Oval Office, given his entire persona is defined by him being a deal-making businessman-turned-politician, that he is sometimes willing to break with his base and past comments to do so. That flexibility has the chance of rubbing some of Trump’s most conservative supporters the wrong way if they feel Trump is willing to compromise in order to mint a deal.
Rep. Steve King, arguably the most anti-immigration member of Congress, tweeted Wednesday night that if this agreement is struck, “Trump base is blown up, destroyed, irreparable, and disillusioned beyond repair. No promise is credible.”
Ann Coulter, a Republican analyst who wrote a book titled “In Trump We Trust,” fumed at Trump’s possible deal with Democrats.
“At this point, who DOESN’T want Trump impeached,” Coulter tweeted in response to Trump, later adding, “If we’re not getting a wall, I’d prefer President Pence.”