With three weeks to go for lawmakers to hit a self-imposed deadline for a sweeping immigration deal, West Wing officials have become consumed with a singular objective: keeping President Donald Trump away from Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).
The objective is drawn from a recurring fear, shared among Trump allies and anti-immigration hardliners both within and without the administration, that the president’s proclivity to change his tune based on what the last person advised could be exploited by Schumer and Democratic leaders.
“If the president and [Schumer] don’t meet for lunch or dinner any time over the next few weeks, that would be the ideal situation,” one White House official noted.
An outside adviser to Trump concurred. “If I worked in the White House, I would make it my mission [for the next three weeks] to keep Chuck the hell away from the president as much as humanly possible,” the adviser said.
Schumer’s office and immigration reform advocates are acutely aware of this dynamic as they seek to forge common ground with the administration on one of the more complex and divisive legislative items. Distance between the Senator and the president, after all, already exists. Few close to either man described their current relationship as being in a positive place, though both sides acknowledge that that could shift back toward chumminess soon.
“That wouldn’t surprise me at all,” said one source close to the minority leader, when told of the directive from the president’s staff to keep him from Schumer.
Though the Democratic leader now unflatteringly characterizes dealing with the president as “negotiating with Jell-O,” Schumer said late last year that Trump “likes us—he likes me, anyway” when immigration-related negotiations between Trump and Democrats were at their friendliest.
Early on, much was made over the bond the men shared. As House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) noted Schumer could “speak New York to the president.” And, in the past at least, the two had personal rapport. Trump enjoyed his conversations with Schumer, often beginning their calls or meetings by riffing on New York media and high-society gossip, according to sources familiar with their talks.
But waxing about Page Six fixations and the divorces or the careers of mutual acquaintances only got Trump and Schumer so far. Eventually, politics was bound to get in the way, as has been the case this past week with Schumer’s frustrations with Trump growing over what he felt was a reneging by the president on the frameworks of a deal that would have ended the standoff over the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program—a program that Trump chose to wind down and ultimately end on March 5, 2018.
With thousands of undocumented minors already losing legal protections and many more facing a similar outcome, the two men attempted to draft a last-minute deal that would have resolved the DACA dilemma while keeping the government funded. According to aides, Schumer and Trump came close to an agreement over a lunch of cheeseburgers and seltzer on Friday. They talked on the phone again a few hours later.
Shortly after that, however, Trump called again and explained to Schumer that he could not sign off on the proposal even though it addressed some of the president’s own legislative priorities, such as funding for a border wall and changes to the Visa lottery system.
According to the source close to Schumer, Trump’s chief of staff, John Kelly, stood next to him during the call as the president offered his objection to a deal he had seemed bullish on just hours earlier. It was evident that Kelly was there, the source said, because Trump would continually ask the “General” to recount what specific problems both he and congressional Republicans had with specific elements. Kelly, who had joined Trump and Schumer for lunch earlier in the day but not raised any objections during that meeting, would call Schumer later to explain that a deal was off.
Schumer’s office said that he did not try to reach Trump by phone after that conversation.
The two have not spoken since. But the minority leader did ding Trump during a floor speech on Monday, declaring that “the great deal-making president sat on the sidelines.” According to White House sources, Trump watched Schumer’s jab on cable news and expressed annoyance at the Senator’s sarcasm and characterization of his lack of leadership skills.
The next day, an aide to Schumer informed the White House that his offer to fund Trump’s proposed border wall had been revoked. Asked why the minority leader didn’t deliver the message himself, an aide explained: “If the president is going to turn the negotiations to his staff anyway why would he bother with him?”
The White House, for its part, has accused Schumer of misrepresenting, if not outright lying, about the the deal that they had supposedly, nearly constructed.
“Chuck Schumer says he’d rescind his ‘offer’ to fund the wall is like me saying I’m going to rescind my ‘offer’ to give all of your readers a million dollars. I never made a real offer. It never existed. That’s exactly what Sen. Schumer did,” White House deputy press secretary Hogan Gidley wrote in an email to The Daily Beast on Tuesday. “He offered an ‘authorization’ for the funding, not an appropriation and that’s D.C. speak for nothing is ever going to happen.”
For immigration reform advocates, the fraying of the Schumer-Trump relationship and the absence of a direct dialogue between the two is primary evidence that a deal on DACA remains far off. To a person, these advocates believe that the best and perhaps only path to a deal rests with the president being persuaded to sign off on a proposal by Schumer, after which he (Trump) would go about selling it to skeptical House Republicans.
It’s a long-shot strategy since, as one Schumer ally noted, “it’s premised on the idea that Trump will subsequently not talk with anyone else.” But even though the likelihood of success is far-off, both sides are still publicly pledging to see if some consensus can be reached.
Marc Short, the president’s director of legislative affairs, told The Daily Beast on Tuesday that the administration was not planning to introduce its own legislative proposal but would reiterate the principles that it has advanced in prior documents to agencies and the Hill. He also noted that the administration would be open to a deal that not only provided a solution to DACA but also expanded protections to a universe beyond the 690,000 or so currently protected under the expiring program.
“I think it depends on what the Democrats are offering,” Short said. “Our position has been that the population inside our borders are obviously, by in large, people who are law abiding or else we would be looking to remove them. If there is an expansion there, we are willing to consider that, particularly as it relates to the DACA population.”
Short noted that immigration advocates have said that many potential DACA-recipients didn’t come forward for protections out of fear that they would subsequently targeted for deportation. “If that’s true, we have said we would be more than happy to consider that,” he said. “What were asking [Democrats] to help us do is make changes so we aren’t back in they same situation 5-10 years from now.”
On Monday, the president had several senators over to the White House to talk immigration. Schumer wasn’t one of them. But two moderate Democrats—Doug Jones of Alabama and Joe Manchin of West Virginia—were. According to a source familiar with the talks, Trump told attendees that he wanted to see “a bipartisan deal on DACA come out of the Senate.”
—with additional reporting by Lachlan Markay