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Lindsey Graham Says Trump Was On Board With Bipartisan Immigration Deal, Until White House Staff Changed His Mind

As a deadline to reach an immigration deal nears, the Trump administration remains opposed to a bipartisan deal. Sen. Graham says someone got to the president last Thursday to change his mind.

Posted on January 16, 2018, at 2:47 p.m. ET

Sen. Lindsey Graham questions Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen during a hearing with the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Joshua Roberts / Reuters

Sen. Lindsey Graham questions Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen during a hearing with the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham is blaming White House staff for President Donald Trump’s dramatic turnaround on immigration that has imperiled bipartisan talks.

Graham is pushing a bipartisan immigration deal that would provide billions of dollars for border security while allowing hundreds of thousands of children of undocumented immigrants to stay in the country. He said Trump initially agreed with the goals of the deal but then dramatically changed his views last week.

Graham said Trump called for a compassionate immigration system based on “love” during a meeting Tuesday. Trump’s attitude seemed to continue through to a 10 a.m. phone call with Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin Thursday, but when senators arrived at the White House for a meeting at noon, Graham said “something had happened.” During that now-infamous meeting, Democrats say Trump referred to Haiti and African nations as “shithole” places.

“Tuesday we had a president that I was proud to golf with, call my friend, who understood immigration had to be bipartisan,” said Graham. “Now I don’t know where that guy went. I want him back.”

He made these remarks during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing with Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, who said on Fox News Sunday that she didn’t “recall” Trump using the term “shithole” in the meeting. During the committee hearing, Nielsen denied hearing Trump referred to any countries as “shithole” countries or, as some have recounted it, “shithouses.”

Nielsen said the administration opposes the Graham- and Durbin-led deal for insufficiently closing immigration “loopholes.”

She said the conversation was “impassioned” and that the president used “tough language,” but said congressmen in the room also swore in front of the president.

The lengthy questioning about Trump’s use of the term at one point caused Graham to remark, “This has turned into an s-show.”

Graham told reporters outside the hearing room Tuesday that he believes Trump’s staff played a role in the president’s change of heart.

“I don’t think the president was well served by his staff. I think the president we saw Tuesday, that Donald Trump exists … I think someone on his staff gave him really bad advice between 10 and 12 on Thursday,” said Graham.

Asked if he was referring to Trump’s chief of staff, John Kelly, Graham said “I think General Kelly is a fine man, but he’s also part of the staff. So there we go.”

Congress has until Friday to pass a spending bill to avoid a government shutdown. Republicans will need Democratic votes in both chambers, but Democrats have said they will not agree to fund the government unless it is tied to an immigration deal.

Former president Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, known as DACA, expires in March and the Trump administration has said it will not renew it. Without action, 690,000 people currently enrolled in DACA and living in the United States would face deportation, according to figures Nielsen provided Tuesday.

A bipartisan working group struck a deal last week to provide a passage to citizenship for DACA recipients, known as DREAMers, while providing increased funding for border security. Democratic Sen. Durbin said the deal will be introduced as legislation Wednesday.

Durbin at times seemed exasperated during the meeting, saying that the bipartisan deal he helped negotiate would provide the Department of Homeland Security with exactly the funding it had requested. “We gave you every penny you asked for,” he said.

But Nielsen said the Department is also seeking new powers to deport undocumented immigrants and also detain them longer. “Sir, it’s not the pennies, it’s closing the loophole,” she said.

Democratic Sen. Cory Booker said Trump’s alleged “shithole” remarks helped embolden racists in America, noting that he had cried “tears of rage” when Durbin relayed the comments to him. He said the words “fester, they become poison” and could enable white supremacist groups. Booker also took a shot directly at Nielsen for saying she could not remember if Trump used that term. “Your silence and your amnesia is complicity,” said Booker.

Graham told reporters after he left the hearing Tuesday that he still expected to get an immigration deal done and that Congress would avoid a government shutdown as well, in part due to public pressure to get something done.

But he added, "what we need ... is a reliable partner at the White House. Somebody like the president who showed up on Tuesday. We cannot do this with people in charge at the White House who have an irrational view of how to fix immigration."

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