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How John Kelly’s White House made “build a wall” moderate

Democratic lawmaker: “I’ll take a bucket, take bricks, and I’ll start building it myself.”

US-POLITICS-MILITARY-TRUMP Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

In an exasperated statement to reporters Sunday, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) identified the root of the problem in stalled negotiations between the White House and the Senate: The White House itself is divided on immigration, with hardliners dominating the discussion.

On one side, there are Trump’s most conservative advisers — White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, senior policy adviser Stephen Miller, and immigration hawks on Capitol Hill — who have the president’s ear. They reportedly scrapped a Democratic offer for $20 billion worth of border wall funding and are holding out for a conservative overhaul of the legal immigration system.

“Every time we have a proposal, it is yanked back by staff members,” Graham, one of the key Republicans in immigration talks, told reporters Sunday afternoon. “As long as Stephen Miller is in charge of negotiating immigration, we are going nowhere. He’s been an outlier for years.”

On the other side of the White House drama is a president whose signature campaign promise was to build a “great, great wall” across the southern border but who has also said he “loves DREAMers”, the nearly 700,000 young unauthorized immigrants who would lose legal protections if a deal is not reached. A package that combines the two has appealed to Trump, but not always. He wavers, switching positions seemingly on a whim.

While Graham said Trump has been open to proposals from Senate Democrats and moderate Republicans, this hardline faction has had the final word over the direction of negotiations, making it difficult to resolve a government shutdown.

Suddenly Democrats are in a strange position — where they once vowed to prevent a border wall because it symbolized immigration extremism, they now see supporting one as the route to a more moderate, bipartisan deal.

“I’ll take a bucket, take bricks, and I’ll start building it myself,” said a visibly frustrated Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-IL), one of Congress’s most progressive voices on immigration. “We will dirty our hands, in order for the DREAMers to have a clean future in America. Then why haven’t we settled this? It’s ransom.”

But as long as conservative hardliners aligned with the White House stay in control, remaining unwilling to compromise — and Trump’s personal beliefs remain unclear — Congress, and the government, remains at a standstill.

Democrats made a major concession on the wall. But that wasn’t enough.

Since the start of Trump’s term in office, congressional Democrats have held firm against the southern border wall — a tangible act of resistance to the president’s immigration platform.

But in a scramble to get the government working again, Democrats put the wall on the table. In a White House meeting Friday, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said he told President Trump to name a price for the southern border wall, and he would accept it. Trump said $20 billion in exchange for a deal on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Schumer thought the two of them had reached an agreement that would keep the government open and establish a path forward on immigration.

Then it all fell apart.

“Yesterday, Sen. Schumer sat down and brought up some of the most delicate and tough political issues, like the wall itself. [Trump] embraced it. Two hours later, he called back and rejected it,” Durbin told Vox Saturday. “It’s very difficult to bargain with someone who is so unpredictable.”

Durbin pointed to Kelly as the person who quashed the progress between the president and Schumer.

“As soon as the guest leaves the office, Gen. Kelly calls in the right-wingers and they bat it down and say, ‘You can’t do it,’” Durbin said. “We’ll never reach an agreement unless there’s a more open approach at the White House and the president is more constructive.”

It’s not the first time the wall has signaled a divide in the White House. Kelly met with Democratic and Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill last Wednesday, repeating what many have known for a long time: A physical border wall will not stretch the entire southern border, and Mexico won’t be paying for it. Then Trump tweeted Thursday morning that the wall “will be paid for, directly or indirectly, or through longer term reimbursement, by Mexico.”

The latest breakdown in immigration talks is over legal immigration

The biggest breakdown in immigration talks is no longer about the wall. Senior White House officials like Kelly and Miller have ensured that immigration negotiations prioritize ending legal immigration programs like the diversity visa program, and protections for children crossing the US border alone.

Gutiérrez said Kelly has “now turned into one of the most ardent proponents of very restrictive immigration policy,” and aligned himself with conservative immigration hardliners in the Senate including Sens. Tom Cotton (R-AR) and David Perdue (R-GA). Gutiérrez added he hoped a White House Chief of staff would remain independent on these issues but said he’s seeing no such autonomy from Kelly.

For Gutiérrez, the recent developments are a signifier of something else coming from the White House: prejudice against Hispanics and other immigrants.

“I don’t really believe it’s about security. It’s about saying, ‘Brown people, stay out of the country.’ And the president said as much,” he said. “It’s very demeaning to demand a wall. For me, why don’t you take your middle finger and just point it at Mexico and point it at everybody. Because it’s the same thing.”

Despite seemingly agreeing to bipartisan immigration deals in the moment, Trump has repeatedly backtracked meetings with moderate Republicans and Democrats, instead doubling down on assurances he’s made to conservatives. This week, Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC), who leads the conservative House Freedom Caucus, told reporters that Trump promised not to back any immigration deal that didn’t have his or Cotton’s blessing.

Their vision, however, goes far beyond a deal Democrats could sign on to.

The silence is deafening

Earlier this week, Kelly met with 25 members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. Publicly, CHC members said the meeting was positive, but Gutiérrez said that Kelly displayed a certain “naiveté” as when he told lawmakers he envisioned a merit-based immigration system where people speaking English and educated were allowed into the United States.

“That’s the naiveté, that you could come to 25 members of Congress whose moms and dads came out here without speaking English, and without any formal educations, and say to us, ‘Those are the wrong people. Your moms and dads are the wrong people, and if they hadn’t been here, I wouldn’t have to be negotiating with you,’” Gutiérrez said.

Since Friday afternoon, communication between the White House and the Senate Democrats seems to have gone into radio silence.

As of Sunday morning, neither Trump nor Kelly had spoken with Schumer, MSNBC’s Kasie Hunt reported. And Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), one of the moderate Senate Republicans working with Democrats to come to a bipartisan immigration deal, said he knew of no communication from the White House to the Senate.

“From the White House, I don’t know of any negotiations that are going on,” Flake said. “The only negotiations I know of are among us, here.”

Rather than negotiating with Democrats and moderate Republicans who are working on a bipartisan immigration bill, the Trump White House seems to be limiting its talks to hardline conservatives in the House and Senate. House conservatives have the president’s ear.

If there’s going to be a DACA deal on the president’s desk, some of these promises will have to be broken. But as long as Trump and Republican leaders keep their word to conservatives, there’s no deal to be had.