WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump appeared to contradict himself multiple times in a meeting on immigration with a bipartisan group of lawmakers Tuesday — a reflection of growing frustration from Capitol Hill about the lack of direction from the White House on the issue.
The President at times suggested he would be looking to sign everything from a stand-alone fix for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program — set to expire in March — to comprehensive immigration reform, often appearing to being guided by lawmakers in the room to modify his positions.
The comments came during a nearly hour-long conversation between the roughly two dozen lawmakers, the President and White House staff that the press was allowed to record — a window into the difficult negotiations that still surround the issue of replacing DACA, which protected young undocumented immigrants who came to the US as children from deportation, and border security.
At the end of the session, Trump suggested that ultimately, he would sign whatever he was presented with.
“I think my positions are going to be what the people in this room come up with,” Trump said. “If they come to me with things I’m not in love with, I’m going to do it. Because I respect them.”
Sens. Jeff Flake and James Lankford after the meeting both said the meeting was surprisingly helpful and they appreciated the President adding some clarity to the discussions, while noting hammering out the details remains to be worked out.
Lankford acknowledged that the meeting got "confusing," saying though Trump at the beginning defined "DACA" as a deal that included DACA plus border security and two other areas of reform, it was unclear during some parts of the meeting.
"It got confusing at times, in fact he said later, 'I just want a clean DACA and we'll do a comprehensive later,' and some of us said, 'Whoa, what do you mean by that?' And he came back to those four items," the Oklahoma Republican told reporters afterward.
The White House declared the meeting a success in a statement released Tuesday afternoon.
"President Donald J. Trump just concluded a successful bipartisan and bicameral meeting on immigration reform," press secretary Sarah Sanders said in the statement. "During the closed-door portion of the meeting, they reached an agreement to negotiate legislation that accomplishes critically needed reforms in four high-priority areas: border security, chain migration, the visa lottery, and the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy."
Asked during the White House briefing by CNN's Jim Acosta whether Trump is demanding border wall funding in exchange for a DACA deal, Sanders would only say: "The President wants border security."
Pressed again repeatedly, Sanders again insisted Trump wants "border security" funding -- but would not commit to the wall.
Trump's equivocation was the opposite of what lawmakers have long sought from the President. Republicans especially have pushed for the administration to draw clear lines around what would be a doable deal, giving them cover with the base to compromise and giving them leverage with Democrats to move the debate forward.
Asked if Tuesday provided the clarity that lawmakers have been asking for, Lankford said there was still more to be done.
"Oh no, there's still some room to go on it," he said. "They're continuing to get more and more clear on what they're putting out, we're getting closer and closer."
Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn made the point directly to Trump during the meeting, saying that House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell both told the President at a legislative retreat with Republicans over the weekend that only a bill with Trump's support would move forward for a vote.
"So, that's I think the picture that we need to be looking through, the lens we need to be looking through, not only what can we agree to among ourselves on a bipartisan basis, but what will you sign into law," Cornyn said. "Because we all want to get to a solution here and we realize the clock is ticking."
But details in the meeting were still hard to come by.
At one point, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, suggested to Trump that Congress could pass the "Dream Act" alone, which would provide a path to citizenship for DACA recipients and which has been Democrats' starting point demand, and then turn to comprehensive reform.
When Trump indicated he would agree to that, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said border security would have to be part of the package, prompting Trump to say that's what he thought Feinstein meant, and then a flurry of clarifications.
Trump said his version of a "clean" deal would include DACA, border security, ending "chain migration" or family-based migration, and ending the diversity visa lottery. But those issues are commonly thought to only be achievable in a comprehensive immigration deal.
Trump then both endorsed doing comprehensive immigration reform sooner and later.
Lawmakers working on a DACA deal have long fought to keep the bill narrow, saying adding more into it would only make it collapse under its own wait.
Trump said he would "take the heat" if lawmakers wanted to move toward comprehensive immigration reform, saying they were "not that far away" from it.
But then a few minutes later, Trump said DACA could come first and reform could come down the road, or immediately after.
"I think what we are all saying is we'll do DACA and we can certainly start comprehensive immigration reform the following afternoon, OK?" Trump said. "We'll take an hour off and start. I do believe that. Because once we get DACA done if it's done properly with security and everything else, if it's done properly, we have taken a big chunk of comprehensive out of the negotiations. I don't think it's going to be that complicated."
Since Trump decided to end DACA in September, lawmakers have been working to find a deal on the issue. The Tuesday meeting came ahead of a January 19 government funding deadline that Democrats are pushing to include DACA and a host of other issues.