clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Why Trump fears a Biden-GOP immigration deal

“He doesn’t want us to solve the border problem because he wants to blame Biden for it.”

Donald Trump, viewed from below, speaks into reporters’ microphones.
Former US President Donald Trump talks to reporters while visiting the polling site at Londonderry High School on January 23, 2024, in New Hampshire.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

For years, Republicans have professed fury over a crisis at the US-Mexico border. For months, many in the GOP have insisted they could only support further aid to Ukraine if it was paired with tougher border security measures to address that crisis.

So President Joe Biden accepted their conditions, giving up Democrats’ longtime demands on immigration and conceding much of what the right wanted — and as recently as Monday, a bipartisan deal seemed near.

But now, Republicans may be backing out. Not because of the substance of the deal, but because it might hurt Donald Trump’s chances of retaking the White House.

That’s what Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told Republican senators in a closed-door meeting, according to Jake Sherman of Punchbowl News, saying “the politics” had put them “in a quandary.”

“When we started this, the border united us and Ukraine divided us,” McConnell said, per Sherman. But, he went on, “The politics on this have changed.” The issue is that “the nominee” — Trump — wants to campaign on immigration. “We don’t want to do anything to undermine him.”

Some pro-deal senators pushed back on how these remarks were reported Thursday, claiming McConnell wasn’t affirmatively declaring the talks dead or separating the two issues. Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT) said instead that McConnell was “ambiguous” about a path forward.

But it’s clear what McConnell was alluding to: that Trump wants there to be chaos at the border while Biden is president, because he thinks such chaos will help defeat the incumbent. Trump does not want congressional Republicans making a deal with Biden to address the actual substantive problem because that would make Biden look good.

Romney confirmed that interpretation. “The border is a very important issue for Donald Trump,” he told reporters Thursday. “And the fact that he would communicate to Republican senators and congresspeople that he doesn’t want us to solve the border problem because he wants to blame Biden for it is really appalling.”

If Republicans do kill the deal, it would make all their protestations about how much they supposedly care about this issue look hollow, and the GOP would come off looking tremendously cynical. They claim to believe the migrant surge of the past few years is destroying the country, but they’d be happy to let it continue unaddressed for another year if it means they win an election.

Why Republicans thought a difficult immigration deal was the key to passing Ukraine aid

Kevin McCarthy and Mitch McConnel stand at a podium with microphones outside the White House.
US Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and then-Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) speak to reporters after meeting with President Joe Biden and fellow congressional leaders at the White House on May 16, 2023.
Alex Wong/Getty

The reason the immigration talks got as far as they did was because of an entirely different issue: Ukraine aid.

The national security establishment in both parties strongly supports further aid to Ukraine, believing that without it, the country’s resistance to Russia’s invasion might collapse. Many GOP senators, including McConnell, share that view, as did former speaker Kevin McCarthy and some House Republicans. But the MAGA right is strongly against further Ukraine aid. And with Republicans in control of the House, they’ve exerted pressure on their chamber’s leaders not to bring a “clean” Ukraine bill to a vote.

So, last year, various Republicans gradually glommed on to the idea of linking Ukraine aid to something they thought Trump supporters (and really all Republicans) wanted: border security.

To McConnell and the faction of Republicans truly trying to pass Ukraine aid, the theory was that forcing Biden into major border security concessions would be a “win” for the right and help make the bill more palatable for Republicans fearing backlash from the base (like new speaker Mike Johnson).

GOP leaders argued to their senators that this was the best chance they’d ever have to get Democrats to accept tough border measures — because, they said, Democrats would surely never agree to a deal with President Trump if he wins. And Republican senators, even anti-MAGA and pro-Ukraine ones like Mitt Romney, presented a united front in negotiations, saying Ukraine aid simply couldn’t pass unless Biden played ball on immigration.

Biden did play ball. And this was a big deal. The longtime reason for congressional gridlock on immigration was that Democrats insisted tougher border measures be paired with an agreement to legalize the status of unauthorized immigrants already living here. But in these talks, Democrats dropped that demand. The bill would be full of restrictionist measures and have nothing on legalization.

As I wrote in December, Biden made this shift in part to try to get the Ukraine aid and in part because he and other Democrats had concluded that the border status quo was unacceptable — that it was both a substantive mess and a political liability for their party.

The talks have been lengthy and difficult, and have at times provoked outrage from both the left and the right. But NBC News reported, citing a source, that as recently as Monday the major policy sticking points had been “largely resolved,” suggesting a deal could be finalized relatively soon.

But it all might fall apart — due to Trump’s campaign needs

Mike Johnson speaks at a rally on the National Mall.
US Speaker of the House Mike Johnson (R-LA) on January 19, 2024.
Anna Moneymaker/Getty

The prospects for the Senate deal have always been questionable in the House. Johnson has spoken of linking Ukraine aid to border security in a way that has surface similarities to Senate Republicans’ strategy. But he’s also said he’d demand far more than it seemed plausible for Republicans to get from Biden, and he hasn’t sounded thrilled with the emerging Senate framework.

In his few months since becoming speaker, Johnson has floundered about trying to please the right wing in the House. But now he has another problem: Trump.

Last week, Johnson appeared on Fox News, and host Laura Ingraham opened her interview by saying, “The president [Trump] actually just got off the phone with me right before the show, and he said he has spoken to you about this deal, and that he is against it, and he urged you to be against this deal.” She added, “President Trump was extremely adamant about that.”

Trump has publicly condemned the potential deal, writing last week on Truth Social, “I do not think we should do a Border Deal, at all, unless we get EVERYTHING needed to shut down the INVASION of Millions & Millions of people, many from parts unknown, into our once great, but soon to be great again, Country!”

When Republicans in the House and Senate have publicly criticized the deal, they have tended to say it simply wouldn’t be tough enough. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) called it a “stinking pile-of-crap bill” and claimed it wouldn’t actually solve the border crisis. And it is unclear how much it would change the fundamental situation, since border arrivals are driven to a significant extent by factors outside of the US’s control.

But McConnell’s comments on “the politics” seem to reveal what he thinks is driving Trump’s recalcitrance. Indeed, Trump’s biggest fear might be that the bill will work, because then he’ll have a harder time attacking Biden. And in truth, he wouldn’t be wrong in that political analysis. A bipartisan border security deal would indeed make Biden look good — that’s one reason he’s been so eager for that deal.

Such blatant hackery, though, reveals the selfishness that’s always been core to who Trump is — he’s happy to throw the country under the bus for his own personal gain, as most famously demonstrated in his attempt to shred democracy rather than admit defeat in the 2020 election.

“The reality is that we have a crisis at the border,” Romney told CNN Thursday. And Trump, he said, was telling Republicans not to do anything about it, saying instead, “Hey, save that problem. Don’t solve it. Let me take credit for solving it later.”

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.