Trump is a moving target as Congress negotiates on immigration

The Homeland Security secretary made the rounds Tuesday on Capitol Hill as she continues to press the agency’s priorities in immigration talks — but she’s facing skepticism from senators about the administration’s reliability on the issue.

The conversations on the Hill come as the Department of Homeland Security is working on a new list of items it wants to see in an immigration deal, according to multiple sources familiar with the discussions in Congress and the administration.

Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, who was one of a handful of red-state Democrats to meet with Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen on Tuesday, said she had told Nielsen plainly that without a promise from President Donald Trump, it was impossible to negotiate on immigration with her.

“There’s things she wanted to talk about in terms of the priorities of the department in border security as we work on a bill, and I said, ‘Listen: Here’s the thing. I can’t commit to anything until you tell me you have the support of the President,'” McCaskill said. “Because, you know, I think somebody’s made the analogy of Lucy and the football. We’ve got to know if we’re going to compromise, we’ve got to know that compromise will in fact have the support of the President.”

McCaskill told reporters that Nielsen didn’t commit that she spoke for the President but didn’t say she wasn’t able to, either.

“She didn’t say she couldn’t,” McCaskill said. “She said, ‘I understand what you’re saying.’ “

In addition to McCaskill, Nielsen met Tuesday with Sens. Jon Tester, D-Montana, Heidi Heitkamp, D-North Dakota, Lamar Alexander, R-Tennessee, and Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, according to an official.

DHS is working off a document that was given to some negotiators in December and was passed out in the room when two dozen lawmakers met with Trump on the issue in a partially televised meeting earlier this month, according to two senior administration officials. However, after the cameras left that meeting, the President told lawmakers he hadn’t signed off on the document and instructed them to disregard it, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, told reporters.

McCaskill wasn’t alone in her frustration with the President’s equivocation. Asked Tuesday about the White House press secretary publicly trashing a bipartisan proposal he had put together, Graham hit back.

“One thing I would say to the White House: You better start telling us what you’re for rather than what you’re against,” the South Carolina senator said. “To my friends at the White House, you’ve been all over the board, you haven’t been a reliable partner and the Senate’s going to move.”

DHS working on new guidance

Based on multiple conversations with members of Congress and their feedback and questions on various pieces of the proposals, one administration official said, the hope with the new written guidance is to clarify further what DHS thinks is necessary in a deal and why. The document is focused on the four areas that the President laid out publicly in that meeting: a solution on the expiring Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy, border security, curtailing family-based migration and ending the diversity visa lottery.

Within the border security category, Nielsen has spoken publicly about a desire for more than just infrastructure and resources at the border — and that the agency is pursuing legal overhauls to immigration enforcement that would give it greater power to remove undocumented immigrants from the country. Increasing enforcement authority has been a tough sell among Democrats.

DHS is also looking to add more depth on what the administration wants to replace DACA, which protected young undocumented immigrants who came to the US as children but which the administration is ending. The official said that would be the “next big thing” for the administration to work through.

The official also noted DHS was “the only people who’ve put pen to paper so far” and was happy to clarify further but wasn’t interested in “negotiating against ourselves.”

And the official acknowledged lawmakers’ desire for greater clarity, especially from the President.

“We understand that some of these members are going to have to get out there, and we want to give them a bill that they can support and they’re not going to get their legs cut out from under them,” the official said. “We understand that. We’re working to get there.”

McCaskill argued, though, that Trump has put Nielsen in a tough spot.

“It puts her in a very difficult position to lobby for something when she can’t tell me the President supports what she’s lobbying for,” McCaskill said, adding that Nielsen told her the secretary “clearly supported the DACA protections,” but the senator reiterated her concern about where the President stood.

“Then she listed things she wanted to see in the bill,” McCaskill said, “and I said, ‘Some of those things I think I could work with you on. But not until I know the President will stand strong for this and make sure he lobbies the House of Representatives to pass whatever it is we end up with on a bipartisan basis in the Senate.’ “

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Melania Trump cancels plans to fly with Trump to Davos

After a Wall Street Journal report that President Donald Trump’s lawyer arranged a $130,000 payment for an adult-film star’s silence about a sexual encounter in 2006, First Lady Melania Trump canceled her trip to Davos. 

Her spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham didn’t mention porn star Stormy Daniels. Instead, she reported the change of plans was related to logistical issues. White house press secretary Sarah Sanders said the president’s delegation leaves Wednesday. 

The WSJ report was published Jan. 12 when the Trumps were in Mar-a-Lago. The First Lady also did not attend the two dinners Trump hosted. And on Martin Luther King Day, she tweeted a picture of herself with a military escort. 



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Immigration talks: What’s next?

As the dust settled Monday on an agreement to reopen the government, the path forward for immigration remained as murky as ever.

Democrats and Republicans who worked to break the impasse over the shutdown spun their vote to accept a slightly shorter continuing resolution as a victory because of a commitment to turn to immigration. But the future of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy and discussions on border security are undetermined.

“Well, there’s conversations already started, bipartisan conversation, about whether we can come up with a bipartisan Senate bill before February 8,” said Senate No. 2 Democrat Dick Durbin, who had been pursuing a DACA compromise for months.

The “hope,” he said, for those who pushed for a promise to move to immigration is that if a bill can pass the Senate with a strong bipartisan vote, President Donald Trump may endorse it and push the House to act.

Since Trump ended DACA, which protects young undocumented immigrants who came to the US as children, lawmakers have worked to find a way preserve the popular program while meeting the President’s and Republicans’ demands for border security and immigration enforcement changes along with it.

The White House on Monday continued to meet with Republican senators, many of whom are conservative hardliners, as it has remained opposed to bipartisan proposals that have been floated thus far.

Still, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell pledged Monday to consider an immigration bill, including DACA, sometime soon.

“it would be my intention to take up legislation here in the Senate that would address DACA, border security, and, related issues as well as disaster relief, defense funding, health care, and other important matters,” McConnell said Monday, saying the process would have “a level playing field” and be “fair to all sides.”

After a brief weekend shutdown, Congress on Monday voted to fund the government until Feb. 8 — which will be the new deadline for any agreement between the parties on immigration and other outstanding issues. Absent agreement, McConnell said, the Senate will move to an open debate.

That was enough to convince a number of Democrats to support the funding bill — but they all indicated they expected to see the promise delivered.

“Trust but verify is my motto,” said Maine Sen. Angus King, an independent who caucuses with Democrats. “He’s made this commitment publicly, he made it on the floor of the Senate. … I think this is an important opportunity for him to demonstrate that he will carry through.”

A ‘Gang of 60’ or more?

Bipartisan talks will continue — but lawmakers were expected to broaden beyond the core group of negotiators who had hammered out a compromise previously.

The founders of the Gang of Six senators that had brought a bipartisan proposal to Trump, only to have it crudely rejected, said that original group will no longer be operative as supporters of its work aim to get something that can pass the full Senate, where 60 votes are needed to advance legislation and Republicans have only a 51-49 majority.

“The Gang of Six started the process,” Graham said. “That’s all it was there to do. We need the Gang of 60. So the Gang of Six is going to be replaced by the Gang of 60.”

“It’s a new gang,” Durbin told CNN. “Some of the old, some of the new.”

And responding to Graham’s assessment of a “Gang of 60,” Durbin said it may need to be even bigger.

“Maybe 70, I don’t know,” Durbin said. “We need, if we can, to find a path to get this done.”

The White House and Republican leadership has been pressing for a group of the congressional “No. 2’s” — the seconds in command in each party in each chamber — to be the main vehicle for negotiations.

White House chief of staff John Kelly and at times Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen have also been participating in those talks.

But further meetings haven’t been scheduled since the government funding votes last week, aides said, and Democrats have long been skeptical the talks are just designed to slow things down.

“I don’t think that group was ever intended to work, it was intended to push things past the deadline,” said a Democratic senator, speaking anonymously to be candid. “It was intended to slow-roll the work.”

What about the GOP House?

Even with the Senate commitment, there was no such indication from the House — leaving senators relying on hope that the lower chamber could follow suit should senators pass a bill.

One influential House conservative, Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows, said the House should pass something “as conservative as it possibly can be” and then send it back to the Senate.

“Hopefully (then) go to conference and find a compromise that we can send to the President’s desk that represents the will of the people,” Meadows told CNN. “But it needs to start here — it can’t start in the Senate.”

Immigration advocacy groups and supporters immediately criticized Democrats for giving up too easily.

“This simply kicks the can down the road with no assurance that we will protect Dreamers from deportation or fight Republican attempts to curtail or eliminate legal immigration,” said Illinois Democrat Rep. Luis Gutierrez, a longtime immigration advocate, in a statement. “I do not see how a vague promise from the Senate Majority Leader about a vague policy to be voted on in the future helps the Dreamers or maximizes leverage.”

White House role

And immediately after the vote to break the impasse on funding, six Republican senators including several hardliners traveled to the White House to meet on the Issue with Trump.

They said the White House wanted their ideas on the four areas the President has identified as his priorities for this deal — DACA, border security, cutting family-based migration and ending the diversity visa lottery.

“We were just talking about all the issues the President identified,” Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn said of the meeting. “Different ideas about how to address them in creative ways.”

The White House did invite two Democrats to meet with the President Monday afternoon, Sens. Joe Manchin and Doug Jones. Both come from deeply red states and have not been involved in immigration policy discussions.

One Republican who was part of the Gang of Six, Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, expressed frustration with any partisan conversations.

“I’m not doing any more immigration negotiations with just Republicans, that’s fruitless,” Flake said Saturday. He repeatedly criticized the president for changing his mind and had pushed McConnell in multiple meetings over the weekend to commit to move regardless of Trump’s approval at the time.

“if we can get an agreement with the White House, that’s great. I’m not holding my breath,” he added.

Asked Monday what his advice for Trump was, Graham implored the President to refrain from blowing up talks.

“Be constructive, just be constructive,” Graham said.

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Miller is important to the immigration debate — or maybe not

When lawmakers went looking for someone to blame for their failed immigration negotiations with President Donald Trump, their ire was drawn on an airy annex on the second floor of the West Wing rather than the Oval Office.

That’s the office of Stephen Miller, Trump’s 32-year-old White House policy director and speechwriter, who has been pointedly slammed by both sides of the aisle on Capitol Hill during the latest fight over funding the government.

Lawmakers have cast the former Capitol Hill aide as the man-behind-the-curtain for Trump, though White House officials dismiss claims of Miller steering the President on immigration.

“The only person I am aware of with veto power in this country is the President,” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said Monday.

Miller, who gets frequent face time with Trump on trips and around the West Wing, has long been a key voice on immigration reform, regularly reaching out to conservative lawmakers on Capitol Hill and anti-immigration organizations across Washington. And Miller — whose hard-line immigration policies can be traced all the way back to his high school years in California — has been the architect of the administration’s toughest immigration policies, including the travel ban and Trump’s plans to crack down on the criminal gang MS-13.

But there is debate — inside and outside the White House — about how powerful Miller actually is. Though Miller is more conservative on immigration than Trump and almost every White House aide, the President ran as a hard-line immigration candidate and looked to make good on that rhetoric during his first year in office

Here is how Miller’s role has played out in recent days:

January 11

Scene: The now infamous meeting with a bipartisan group of lawmakers where Trump denigrated African nations and Haiti.

Trump, earlier in the day, had invited Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin and Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham to discuss the deal the pair struck to protect the roughly 800,000 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients who were brought to the United States illegally as children and to beef up border security.

Durbin and Graham said Trump’s tone changed in the roughly two hours between the call where he invited them and their meeting. They also felt ambushed: The meeting that they thought would be them and the president included White House aides, like Miller, and conservatives like House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Sen. Tom Cotton.

In the meeting, the once open-to-negotiation Trump was dismissive of protecting the DACA recipients and fumed about the United States’ immigration policies, reportedly labeling places in Africa as “shithole” countries and asking why the United States was not welcoming more people from Norway, as opposed to places like Haiti.

January 16

Days after Trump’s comments in the Oval Office roiled Washington, both Durbin and Graham were eager to blame Trump’s staff — namely Miller — for the blow up in the Oval Office.

“Somebody on staff gave him really bad advice,” Graham told reporters. “The President I saw on Tuesday is the guy I play golf with. Something happened … This has turned into an s-show.”

Durbin was more direct.

“Any effort to kill immigration reform usually has Mr. Miller’s fingerprints on it,” Durbin told reporters.

January 19

As the government shutdown loomed, Trump invited Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to the White House for what ended up being an over-hour-long meeting on funding the government and immigration reform.

Schumer, Trump and their chiefs of staff sat in the Oval Office, where — according to the New York Democrat — Schumer offered to fund the military and put Trump’s signature wall around the US-Mexico border “on the table.” Schumer also claimed that Trump agreed to back a short-term funding agreement — likely four or five days — to give negotiators more time on immigration.

Trump, Schumer said, then changed his mind and called him a few hours later to spike the plan and propose a three-week deal.

“Negotiating with this White House is like negotiating with Jell-O,” Schumer later said on the Senate floor, adding that “as you take one step forward, the hard right forces the President three steps back.”

Those hard-right forces, in the minds of Schumer and other Democrats on Capitol Hill, include Miller and chief of staff John Kelly.

January 20

By Saturday — the first day of the shutdown — the White House had had enough with the conventional wisdom that Trump wants an immigration deal while Miller and others pushed him right.

This feeling was deepened when Graham opened up on Miller to reporters on Capitol Hill.

“I’ve talked with the President, his heart is right on this issue, I think he’s got a good understanding of what will sell, and every time we have a proposal it’s only yanked back by staff members. And as long as Stephen Miller is in charge of negotiating immigration we’re going nowhere,” Graham said. “He’s been an outlier for years.”

The comment by the on-again, off-again Trump critic annoyed the White House and elicited a response.

“As long as Sen. Graham chooses to support legislation that sides with people in this country illegally and unlawfully instead of our own American citizens, we’re going nowhere,” White House deputy press secretary Hogan Gidley said Saturday, parroting Graham. “He’s been an outlier for years.”

January 22

Miller has yet to comment on the attack leveled against him by Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill.

But the White House press office bolted to his defense as an agreement to fund the government loomed on Monday.

“I think that’s a sad and desperate attempt by a few people trying to tarnish a staffer,” Sanders said Monday. “Stephen’s not here to push his agenda. He’s here to push the President’s agenda like everybody in this building.”

Raj Shah, speaking with CNN after lawmakers on Capitol Hill struck a deal, echoed Sanders.

“Those charges are, frankly, ridiculous and they are a little insulting,” he said. “This is the President of the United States. He is setting the agenda.”

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Collins throws shutdown shade at Cruz

Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas told reporters on Monday he has “consistently opposed shutdowns,” which later led to a response from his Republican colleague Sen. Susan Collins of Maine: “I am rendered speechless.”

Earlier Monday, Cruz told reporters he is not for shutting the government down, following a vote to reopen the federal government after its being shuttered nearly three days.

“I have consistently opposed shutdowns. In 2013, I said we shouldn’t be shutting the government down,” Cruz told reporters on Monday.

Cruz is widely accused by Republicans and Democrats of organizing conservative lawmakers to shut down the government in 2013 over a failed plan to defund Obamacare, though to this day Cruz has disputed that characterization. Cruz also was one of 18 senators who voted against the bill that would end the 2013 shutdown.

When a reporter pointed out that he had “stood in the way” of preventing a shutdown in 2013, Cruz responded it was “factually incorrect and a wonderful media narrative” that he did that.

When told about Cruz’s comments earlier on government shutdowns, Collins paused in her response and appeared to be in disbelief.

“You’ve rendered me speechless,” she said, then paused. “2013. 2013.”

Cruz has not immediately responded to CNN’s request for comment on Collins’ remarks.

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The longer the shutdown the bigger the risk to the economy

The government shutdown could take a bite out of the economy — depending on how long it lasts.

Even if the shutdown drags on, it is likely to have only a limited impact.

The 16-day shutdown in 2013 was the costliest shutdown in the nation’s history — $20 billion, according to an estimate from Moody’s Analytics. Official government figures suggest it reduced gross domestic product, the broadest measure of the nation’s economic activity, by 0.3 percentage points.

If the current shutdown lasts just as long, it’s possible it won’t have as much impact, because the economy today is much stronger than it was in 2013.

“It’s a hit, but it’s digestable hit,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist for Moody’s Analytics. “The economy is so strong right now, it’d take a lot to derail it.”

Federal government spending adds more than $1 trillion a year to the U.S. economy. But even if it shuts down, most of that money will eventually be spent.

Most of the nearly 2 million federal workers whose paychecks will be halted have been deemed essential: air traffic controllers and TSA agents at airports, prison guards and FBI agents. Members of the military, who are not counted in the 2 million federal government civilian workers estimate, also remain on the job, though their paychecks could also be halted temporarily. They will all definitely receive backpay if the shutdown drags on to their next payday. Most of those employees who receive direct deposits are due to be paid this coming Friday.

But even the workers sent home — a total of 850,000 during the 2013 shutdown — traditionally get paid for their time off. So do many government contractors whose checks may also be put on hold. Those businesses include janitorial and landscaping services, as well as defense contractors and construction firms working on public works projects.

Many government benefits, such as Social Security checks and food stamps, will continue to be issued without interruption. Otherwise, that could significantly disrupt the economy. Tax refunds could conceivably be delayed, although it would take a longer shutdown to affect those. That’s because with the changes in the tax system due to last year’s tax reform bill, the IRS has already said people shouldn’t file their 2017 returns until Jan. 29.

Any damage to the economy is more likely to come from federal employees and contractors spending less during the shutdown. The money they would have spent at restaurants, shops and other companies is economic activity that won’t be recouped. If tourists cancel plans for travel to national parks during the shutdown, the hotels and other businesses that depend on those tourist dollars will also be hurt. Although many national parks remain open, they are generally not staffed.

“The dollars and cents of federal spending matter, but [the problem] was really the impact on confidence due to the uncertainty,” said Zandi.

But the strength of the current economy, with both consumer confidence and business confidence near record high, should protect against a spending pullback.

“Sentiment now is as strong as it gets,” he said.

That confidence is one of the things that has been driving the stock market to new records. A major correction could reduce household wealth and have an impact on the economy. But history suggests that investors shrug off government shutdowns as temporary events.

The S&P 500 was essentially unchanged during the longest shutdown on record, the 21-day shutdown in late 1995 and early 1996. Stocks rose during the 16-day shutdown of 2013.

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