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Trump Wobbles On Central Campaign Themes, Riling His Far-Right Base

In a meeting with members of Congress from both parties, the president suggested he was, among other things, open to “comprehensive immigration reform.”

Posted on January 9, 2018, at 5:11 p.m. ET

Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

President Trump seemingly reversed some central themes of his 2016 campaign in the course of just about an hour Tuesday afternoon, surprising both Republicans and Democrats.

During a 90-minute meeting — most of which was televised — with lawmakers from both parties, Trump seemed open to far-reaching immigration reform, legislation that would include a pathway to citizenship for at least some undocumented immigrants, and restoring pork-barrel spending in Congress. His communications team announced mid-meeting that Trump would soon fly to Switzerland to meet with the global elite.

“I really do believe Democratic and Republican — the people sitting around this table — want to get something done in good faith,” Trump said during the bipartisan meeting. “And I think we're on our way to do it.

The meeting itself gave Trump a rare opportunity to show off his deal-making technique, something he has long called his signature skill, at a time when questions about his mental stability have come up due to claims made by aides in a new book. The televised negotiations between the White House and Congress, which are rarely ever made public, showed Trump calmly dealing with members of both parties and in agreement with most suggestions, while holding back on any specifics.

Sen. Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican and frequent Trump antagonist who was part of an earlier Senate immigration reform working group, told CNN after the meeting that he had gone in with “pretty low expectations,” but was ultimately “surprised,” saying Trump showed “flexibility” on immigration.

Trump, in the meeting, raised “comprehensive immigration reform,” calling it “where I would like to get to eventually,” adding, “if we do the right bill here, we are not very far away.” Trump’s openness to negotiate on “comprehensive immigration reform,” a loosely defined issue, is already riling his base, which has dubbed any path to citizenship for undocumented people currently in the country as "amnesty." Trump, during his campaign, also frequently attacked other GOP presidential candidates for supporting those kinds of policies.

Trump, though, has also been said to have made loose agreements with Democrats in the past on immigration only to walk them back, as Democratic leaders say he did with his “Chuck and Nancy” DREAMers talks last fall.

Asked about Trump’s comments on comprehensive immigration reform, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders repeatedly said during Tuesday’s briefing that the issue was not a focus for the administration at the moment. Instead, she reiterated that negotiations would deal with “four high-priority areas: border security, chain migration, the visa lottery, and DACA policy.”

Following the meeting, Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley was one of the Republicans who warned of the complications of Trump possibly taking on comprehensive reform. “I don’t think comprehensive immigration is as imminent as he would think it could be,” he told reporters.

Trump also suggested in the meeting that members of both parties should look at bringing earmarks back to Congress — the pet-project spending long considered the swampiest of Washington creations, and banned by Republicans in 2011 under then-speaker John Boehner. Already, conservatives are bashing any discussion related to returning to earmarks, which some proponents believe could help grease the wheels in a jammed Capitol.

“If Republicans bring back earmarks, then it virtually guarantees that they will lose the House,” said conservative group Club for Growth president David McIntosh in a statement. “Bringing back earmarks is the antithesis of draining the swamp. Earmarks will only benefit the special interests that grow government at the expense of working men and women.”

Equally shocked by Trump’s comments about earmarks, Democrats on their way out of the White House jokingly urged reporters to grill Republicans about what Trump said, amid laughs.

During the briefing, Sanders stressed that Trump brought earmarks up as a solution to avoid the “fighting” in Congress and encourage more “fixing,” and added that it would need to be reinstated in a more careful manner with controls.

Trump also said on camera in the meeting that any deal on DACA — the soon-to-end program that protects young, undocumented immigrants from getting deported — should be a "bill of love."

The phrase is familiar. As a presidential candidate, Trump attacked former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush for calling illegal immigration "an act of love." Tuesday afternoon, soon after the president’s meeting ended, Breitbart’s homepage lead with a campaign-era picture of a smiling Trump holding out his hand for Bush. Mark Krikorian, the executive director of Center for Immigration Studies, which supports restricting immigration, tweeted along the same lines.

Far-right commentator Ann Coulter, who has been a big supporter of the president, tweeted during the meeting that “the DACA lovefest” at the White House would bring more damage to Trump than anything in the new Michael Wolff book, which features top aides reportedly questioning Trump’s mental aptitude.

In the meeting, Trump also said the DACA deal would include some elements of border security, which both Republicans and Democrats present at the meeting, based on their comments, have interpreted to not necessarily include a robust border wall, arguably Trump's biggest campaign promise.

“We don’t need a 2,000-mile wall,” Trump said. “We don’t need a wall where you have rivers and mountains and everything else protecting it, but we need a wall for a fairly good portion.” He added that Congress had previously signed off on an “essentially similar” structure in 2006: a “very substantial fence.”

When Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, urged Trump to pursue comprehensive immigration reform as well, Trump did not reject the idea. “If you want to take it that further step, I’ll take the heat,” Trump said. “You are not that far away from comprehensive immigration reform.” Graham, in a statement, later called the meeting "the most fascinating meeting I’ve been involved with in 20-plus years in politics."

Following the meeting, Rep. Mark Meadows, chairman of an influential group of House conservatives, told reporters the president’s two-step approach, which would include comprehensive immigration reform as a second step after DACA and border security, was a “nonstarter.”

As Trump was in the meeting, the White House also announced that the president, who ran on a populist platform, would be attending the World Economic Forum at Davos, Switzerland, which is attended by the wealthiest people in the world. Trump will be the first president to attend the forum in 18 years. Just last year, none of his aides attended the event because they thought it went against the president's priorities. Steve Bannon, the president’s former chief strategist whom Trump has now virtually disowned, derided “the party of Davos” as the opposition to the movement he saw as Trump’s base.

On Tuesday, however, the White House argued that Trump’s attendance at Davos was all about promoting his "America first" agenda — another big component of his campaign.

“Our thinking hasn’t changed at all,” Sanders said. “The president’s message is very much the same.”

Paul McLeod contributed additional reporting to this story.

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