House Republicans might have gone into their Tuesday evening meeting with President Donald Trump expecting a discussion about immigration policy, but what they got was an episode of what might be dubbed “The Trump Show.”
The president did discuss dueling immigration bills crafted by members of the GOP conference. And he urged them to send him a bill that closes what his team dubs “loopholes” that he claims compelled his administration to institute a zero-tolerance program that prosecutes all adult migrants who try to enter the United States illegally, a misdemeanor, even if they arrive with minor children.
“The president supports both of those bills, and he talked about that tonight,” House Majority Whip Steve Scalise said. “He said, ‘I want these bills on my desk.’”
The Louisiana Republican said his whip team wiould count votes on the compromise bill Tuesday night: “It’s probably got a better chance of passing. And I support both bills.”
“I would imagine most members are going to approach this with a yes-yes strategy,” Scalise added. “Some members might vote against the first, but what we’re encouraging everybody to do is help us pass the second bill and let’s get that bill to the president’s desk so he can sign it.”
But as often is the case with Trump, including earlier in the day at a small-business conference at a nearby Capitol Hill hotel, the president was less than clear about which immigration measure he really would prefer to see pass. And he veered from topic to topic, covering tax policy, North Korea and even November’s midterm elections. Several members used the same term to describe Trump’s focus: “a wide range of things.”
And in signature fashion, the former reality television star called out a political foe. This time, however, he did it to Rep. Mark Sanford’s face, according to multiple members, who said the president mocked the former South Carolina governor for running a “tough” campaign in his failed 1st District primary. (On that primary’s final day of campaigning, Trump fired off a tweet harshly criticizing Sanford and reminding voters there of an affair.)
The president called Sanford a “nasty guy,” according to a source in the room, who said there were some muted boos in reaction.
“It’s part of the business,” New York Rep. Peter T. King said. “Mark’s called him out over the years.
“That’s Donald Trump,” he added. “We’re used to that in New York.”
Texas Rep. Randy Weber said “the president has his own style.”
“He has kind of a … flash effect. He pretty much will say things that will get people’s attention,” Weber said. “But you have to give him credit: he’s an equal opportunity insulter.”
To ramp up the Trump drama, several House Democrats tried to crash the meeting in the Capitol basement. Rep. Juan C. Vargas of California carried a sign with this social media slogan: “#FamiliesBelongTogether.”
GOP members were not surprised the president opted against sticking to an immigration-only message. But they reported no clear sense of whether he would sign a stand-alone bill addressing the migrant family separation controversy spurred by images of infants and small children being held in cages and recordings of their wails after being separated from parents.
In part, members entered the room — from which the aroma of fried chicken sandwiches and bacon wafted into a hallway packed with reporters — hoping to get some clarity on just how the president wants them to fix the family separation issue.
The president dubbed the family separation program a “nasty process,” saying he “certainly wants it to end,” King said.
Trump did not indicate whether he would accept a stand-alone bill on the issue, Weber said. Nor did he mention several House and Senate bills that have been rolled out or are in the works.
“He said we need to deal with it. And it will be dealt with,” he said. “Sen. [Ted] Cruz has a bill out. And I’ve been told Mark Meadows has a bill out,” referring to the North Carolina Republican.
The president mentioned that his daughter Ivanka Trump, also a senior White House aide, had discussed the family separation matter with him — specifically the more gruesome images, several members told reporters.
Republican members said the president prefaced his call for them to address the issue by saying “it’s the right thing to do.” But he also warned them the images spell trouble for the party politically, and could hurt them in the midterms.
Watch: How Trump’s Immigration Policy Could Threaten GOP Legislative Agenda Ahead of Midterms
At issue is the Trump administration’s decision to prosecute any adult trying to enter the United States illegally, citing provisions of a 2008 law implemented by Attorney General Jeff Sessions this spring. Since minors cannot go to jail with their parents, the effect is an inevitable separation of children and parents.
Despite his aides saying this week that Trump wants to negotiate on the family policy and other immigration matters with members of both parties, there were no Democrats in the Capitol basement banquet room Tuesday evening.
Earlier in the day, some got emotional while pleading with their GOP colleagues to press the president to end the program immediately. One, House Oversight and Government Reform ranking member Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland, had this message for Republicans: “We need you to tell him we reject this mean policy. We need you to tell him to abandon this policy. We need you to remind him this is the United States of America and it is a great country. And we need you to stand up for these children.”
Sessions and White House domestic policy adviser Stephen Miller have said the policy is necessary because, by definition under the law, trying to cross the U.S. border illegally is a crime. (Again, a misdemeanor.)
House Republicans added language meant to end most of the family separations to a broader compromise immigration measure that will likely hit the floor this week. Senate Republicans are vowing to pass their own “straightforward” measure, as described by Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas. And Democrats in both chambers are pushing their own legislation designed to address the policy.
Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and other administration officials point to the 2008 child-trafficking law and a subsequent court ruling, claiming both leave the administration with its hands “tied,” and compel law enforcement officials to send migrant children into the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services while their parents — or the adults they showed up with — are processed by the judicial system.
As he did again Tuesday, the president contends it’s all the fault of congressional Democrats — a claim that is false.
“As a result of Democratic-supported loopholes in our federal laws, most illegal immigrant families and minors from Central America … cannot be detained together or released together, only released,” Trump said during his midday remarks at the small-business conference in Washington, adding that the “crippling loopholes … cause family separation that we don’t want.”
But that 2008 law passed both chambers unanimously and was signed by a Republican president, George W. Bush. Both Bush and his successor, Barack Obama, chose to implement that law in a manner that kept families together.
Nielsen has become the administration’s public face and top defender of the family separation policy. On Monday, she urged House GOP members to use their expected immigration votes to address the “loopholes” she says were created by the court ruling.
“We will not apologize for enforcing the laws passed by Congress,” she tweeted Monday. “We are a nation of laws. We are asking Congress to change the laws.”
Dean DeChiaro and Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.