WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Thursday said he was "fairly close" to a deal with congressional leaders to preserve protections for young immigrants living illegally in America but he's insisting on "massive border security" as part of any agreement.
Trump, speaking to reporters before surveying hurricane damage in Florida, pushed back against Democratic leaders who claimed there was a deal on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) initiative. He also said his promised wall along the U.S.-Mexico border would "come later."
"We're working on a plan subject to getting massive border controls. We're working on a plan for DACA. People want to see that happen," Trump said. He added: "'I think we're fairly close but we have to get massive border security."
After he landed in Florida, he declared repeatedly, "If we don't have a wall, we're doing nothing."
Trump, in a series of early morning tweets, disputed the characterization of a private White House dinner on Wednesday night by his guests, Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York and Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, the top Democrats on Capitol Hill. Trump said there was no deal.
But speaking on the Senate floor Thursday morning, Schumer insisted that both sides were in agreement and there was no dispute.
"If you listen to the president's comments this morning ... it is clear that what Leader Pelosi and I put out last night was exactly accurate," said Schumer. "We have reached an understanding on this issue. We have to work out details, and we can work together on a border security package with the White House and get DACA on the floor quickly."
Indeed, in the face of ferocious pushback from conservative lawmakers and media outlets including Breitbart, run by former Trump adviser Steve Bannon, the White House appeared focused more on reshaping presentation of the agreement, than on denying it outright.
"By no means was any deal ever reached," White House spokeswoman Lindsay Walters told reporters aboard Air Force One as the president traveled to Florida. "This is something that Congress needs to work on"
Democratic aides said that although there was no final deal, an agreement had been reached.
But Breitbart was already labeling Trump "Amnesty Don."
"The Trump administration will not be discussing amnesty," Walters said. The president wants "a responsible path forward in immigration reform. That could include legal citizenship over a period of time. But absolutely by no means will this White House discuss amnesty," she said, although most conservatives would consider "legal citizenship over a period of time" to meet the definition of amnesty.
Schumer and Pelosi said in a statement that the details on border security needed to be negotiated, that both sides agreed "the wall would not be any part of this agreement" and that Trump said he would pursue the wall later.
And soon after, Trump appeared to confirm that approach. "The wall will come later, we're right now renovating large sections of wall, massive sections, making it brand new," he told reporters before his Florida trip.
He also said Republican congressional leaders, House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky favored his approach on the immigration program. "Ryan and McConnell agree with us on DACA," Trump said, adding that he had spoken to them by telephone.
Trump said he had spoken to Ryan.
It was a head-snapping series of events for a president whose White House campaign demonized immigrants and focused intensely on construction of a border wall that Trump insisted Mexico would pay for. During the campaign, Trump declared repeatedly that he would "immediately terminate" President Barack Obama's DACA executive order upon taking office.
However, since then the president has not seemed comfortable with a harsh approach toward immigrants brought here illegally as kids, and he has been inclined recently to turn to Democrats to jump-start legislative imperatives. Only days ago, Trump and the Democratic leaders agreed to back a three-month extension of the debt limit in order to speed hurricane assistance.
"The WALL, which is already under construction in the form of new renovation of old and existing fences and walls, will continue to be built," Trump tweeted early Thursday.
At the same time, he expressed sympathy for the hundreds of thousands of younger immigrants vulnerable to deportation even though they were brought to the United States as toddlers or children. He had announced last week that his administration was rescinding the program and gave Congress six months to come up with a legislative fix.
"Does anybody really want to throw out good, educated and accomplished young people who have jobs, some serving in the military, really?" Trump wrote. "They have been in our country for many years through no fault of their own - brought in by parents at a young age. Plus BIG border security."
A person briefed on the Wednesday night meeting, who spoke on condition anonymity about the private get-together, said the deal specifies bipartisan legislation that would provide eventual citizenship for the young immigrants.
House Republicans would normally rebel over such an approach, which many view as amnesty for lawbreakers. Early response from conservatives indicated their loyalty to Trump did not go so far as to allow them to embrace his immigration pact with the Democrats.
The House's foremost immigration hard-liner, GOP Rep. Steve King of Iowa, addressed Trump over Twitter, writing that if the reports were true, "Trump base is blown up, destroyed, irreparable, and disillusioned beyond repair. No promise is credible."
Conservative commentator Ann Coulter said over Twitter, "At this point, who DOESN'T want Trump impeached?"