As President Donald Trump’s self-imposed DACA deadline nears, his administration has managed to place itself at odds, at one time or another, with just about all of the relevant stakeholders in the debate over what comes next. In the past week alone, he’s appeared to support the program, then oppose it, then support it again – in unusually specific terms.
Democrats and Republicans in both chambers have veered between confusion and contempt for the White House’s position – or lack thereof – going forward. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer likened the process to “negotiating with Jell-O,” while his GOP counterpart, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, said last week, “I’m looking for something that President Trump supports, and he has not yet indicated what measure he is willing to sign.”
On Wednesday, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders told reporters that, at long last, word was on its way down from the mountaintop.
“The White House will release a legislative framework on Monday that represents a compromise that members of both parties can support,” she said. “We encourage the Senate to bring it to the floor.”
What’s inside this document, of course, will remain a mystery until then. (Asked for details, Sanders demurred, saying she didn’t want to “take away the fun for Monday.”)
What is known, however, are Trump’s public pronouncements – dating back to the 2016 campaign – and the reported details of his meetings with congressional leaders. It’s been a weird, rough ride over the past few months. Here’s a brief look back.
The 2016 campaign: ‘Immediately terminate’
On the trail two years ago, Trump was unequivocal on the fate of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. It was a goner.
In his first speech as a candidate, he pledged to “immediately terminate President Obama’s illegal executive order on immigration.” And in case it was unclear whether he was referring to DACA or DAPA, a different Obama program intended to protect the undocumented parents of US citizens, the Trump campaign website’s 10-point immigration plan called for killing both.
And it wasn’t just on paper or online. During a particularly fiery speech in Arizona on August 31, 2016, he made this promise: “We will immediately terminate President Obama’s two illegal executive amnesties in which he defied federal law and the Constitution to give amnesty to approximately 5 million illegal immigrants, 5 million.”
Post-election: ‘Terrific people’
After outlasting Hillary Clinton on Election Day, Trump began to pump the brakes. In an interview with “60 Minutes” less than a week on, he offered a slightly more nuanced view, and some new insight into his priorities. Asked if he still planned to “deport millions and millions of undocumented immigrants,” Trump said this (emphasis mine):
“What we are going to do is get the people that are criminal and have criminal records, gang members, drug dealers, we have a lot of these people, probably 2 million, it could be even 3 million, we are getting them out of our country or we are going to incarcerate. But we’re getting them out of our country, they’re here illegally. After the border is secured and after everything gets normalized, we’re going to make a determination on the people that you’re talking about who are terrific people, they’re terrific people but we are gonna make a determination at that. But before we make that determination – Lesley, it’s very important – we want to secure our border.”
DACA was not mentioned by name, but it was implicit in the question. What Trump advocated here was in line, in general terms, with Obama administration policy – that is, prioritizing the deportations of undocumented immigrants caught up in the legal system. Once that was settled, he said, and new border security efforts were in place, the fate of those “terrific people” would come up for debate.
(Note: This became a theme, as you’ll see below, in the months before and after he took office. In his Time magazine Person of the Year profile, Trump said of DACA, “We’re going to work something out that’s going to make people happy and proud.”)
Early days in the White House: ‘We’re going to show great heart’
On February 16, 2017, Trump held a news conference to introduce his new nominee to head the Labor Department, then began taking questions. Eventually, the subject turned to DACA, and the White House’s plans for it. Trump was asked, point blank, whether he would continue or “end it.”
His answer was … complicated. Not for the first time, Trump seemed more focused on Trump than DACA recipients or any of the legal particulars.
“We’re going to show great heart,” he said, before chewing over his predicament and, as a matter of course, suggesting some recipients were criminals. “DACA is a very, very difficult subject for me, I will tell you. To me, it’s one of the most difficult subjects I have, because you have these incredible kids, in many cases – not in all cases. In some of the cases they’re having DACA and they’re gang members and they’re drug dealers too. But you have some absolutely incredible kids – I would say mostly – they were brought here in such a way – it’s a very, very tough subject.”
“But the DACA situation is a very, very – it’s a very difficult thing for me. Because, you know, I love these kids. I love kids. I have kids and grandkids. And I find it very, very hard doing what the law says exactly to do. And you know, the law is rough. I’m not talking about new laws. I’m talking the existing law is very rough. It’s very, very rough.”
June 2017: ‘DACA recipients will continue to be eligible … ’
About five months later, the Department of Homeland Security announced plans to rescind DAPA (Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents). The decision was mostly for show – the program, which was tied up in the courts, never got off the ground.
What did grab significant attention, though, came farther down in a post to the DHS website addressing “frequently asked questions.” Among them were two notes on how this might affect DACA. The short answer was that it wouldn’t.
The longer one said this: “DACA recipients will continue to be eligible as outlined in the June 15, 2012 memorandum. DACA recipients who were issued three-year extensions before the district court’s injunction will not be affected, and will be eligible to seek a two-year extension upon their expiration. No work permits will be terminated prior to their current expiration dates.”
Heading into the summer of 2017, DACA’s place seemed, if not secure, then low down on the administration’s to-do list.
September 2017: ‘We are a nation of laws’
Then came last September 5 and the decision to end DACA – with a caveat.
Trump passed on the opportunity to share the word himself, instead leaving the on-camera job to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a longtime opponent of the program. Trump weighed in with a statement.
“I do not favor punishing children, most of whom are now adults, for the actions of their parents,” he said. “But we must also recognize that we are a nation of opportunity because we are a nation of laws.”
The wheels had been set in motion, but the rollback would happen over the subsequent six months, creating what is generally regarded as the final deadline, March 5. Both on Twitter and in his statement, Trump framed the decision as a push, a real world incentive “for Congress to finally act.”
“Congress, get ready to do your job - DACA!,” he tweeted on the morning of the announcement. Later on, that night, he seemed to leave open space for a reversal or extension of the program, if no legislative fix could be agreed on.
Final Countdown: the 2018 whirlwind
In the past 24 hours, Trump and his White House have offered (and promised to offer by next week, respectively) a more detailed explanation of what they would like to see in a bill to end the current impasse.
During an ad hoc back-and-forth with reporters on Wednesday night, Trump allowed that he would accept a path to citizenship for DACA-eligible immigrants. (Something Sanders had refused to address a few hours earlier.)
“We’re going to morph into it. It’s going to happen at some point in the future,” he said, floating a 10- to 12-year timeline, adding: “Tell (DACA recipients) not to be concerned, OK? Tell them not to worry about it. We’re going to solve the problem. Now, it’s up to the Democrats, but they should not be concerned.”
But Trump’s remarks, given before he jetted out of town for the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, were less a definitive policy statement than fodder for the latest in a whirlwind round of headlines. I ran it down like this in my story from Wednesday afternoon:
Over the course of a little less than two weeks, Trump has gone from publicly asking Democrats and Republicans, gathered at the White House, to join together and forge a “bill of love” (January 9, 2018), to privately raging over the entry of immigrants from “shithole countries” (January 11, 2018), to declaring in a tweet, during a helter-skelter mini-shutdown, that Democrats want “unchecked illegal immigration” (January 20, 2018) – all the while keeping mum on what he, the president, actually wanted.
What the future holds is, as ever, an open question.
DACA’s fate would be uncertain if it was left to congressional leaders alone to craft a bargain. But with Trump never more than a tweet away from either blowing up any progress or, conversely, shifting his position and offering Republicans political cover to meet some of Democrats’ demands, there really is no tried and tested road map.