Trump Says He’s ‘Not Happy’ With Border Deal, but Doesn’t Say if He Will Sign It
WASHINGTON — President Trump declared on Tuesday that he was “not happy” about the bipartisan border security compromise negotiated by congressional leaders, but gave no indication whether he would sign or veto it before another government shutdown hits at midnight Friday.
In his first comments since learning details of the deal, Mr. Trump said he would have to study it more before deciding what to do. The compromise includes just $1.375 billion for new fencing along the border, far short of the $5.7 billion he demanded for a wall — and less even than the deal that he rejected in December, triggering a 35-day partial government shutdown.
“Am I happy at first glance?” he said, responding to reporters at the beginning of a cabinet meeting. “I just got to see it. The answer is no, I’m not. I’m not happy.”
But he said he was “using other methods” to build the wall and played down the chances of having to close government doors again. “I don’t think you’re going to see a shutdown,” he said.
The measure, brokered by senior members of both parties from both chambers of Congress on Monday night, will be taken up as early as Wednesday by the House, which is controlled by Democrats, followed by the Senate, which is run by Republicans.
Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, spoke with Mr. Trump by telephone on Tuesday and urged him to accept the compromise. “I hope he’ll sign it,” Mr. McConnell told reporters afterward. “I think he got a pretty good deal.” Notably, he did not rule out overriding a veto if Mr. Trump turned against the compromise.
Mr. Trump told reporters that he was still thinking about declaring a national emergency to bypass Congress and finance wall construction on his own authority, a move that Mr. McConnell has warned him against and that would almost surely be challenged in court.
But Mr. Trump seemed to be setting the stage for eventually swallowing the compromise and avoiding an emergency declaration by emphasizing that he was already building the wall and was “moving things around” in the budget from “far less important areas” to finance it even without Congress.
“Right now, we’re building a lot of wall,” he said. “And you think it’s easy? We’re building in the face of tremendous obstruction and tremendous opposition.”
In fact, no new walls have been built or financed by Congress based on the prototypes that the Trump administration unveiled in October 2017. Projects to replace or repair about 40 miles of existing barriers have been started or completed since 2017.
Construction of the first extension of the current barriers, 14 miles of a levee wall in the Rio Grande Valley sector, is slated to begin this month, but a butterfly center has asked a judge to block the construction as the barrier would bisect its property.
In an attempt to appease Mr. Trump, Republicans repeatedly referred to the deal as a “big down payment” on his wall and softened on the notion of transferring funding within the government to build more barriers. Mr. McConnell said he had no objection to the president using whatever “tools” were available, and Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee offered a specific proposal: the use of $800 million in drug interdiction funding to shore up border security in areas used by narcotic traffickers.
In his remarks on Tuesday, Mr. Trump flip-flopped again on taking responsibility for the government shutdown that ended last month without any money for the wall. During the weeks leading up to the impasse that closed federal agencies, Mr. Trump said he would be “proud to shut down the government for border security” and would not blame Democrats.
But during the shutdown, as 800,000 federal workers were caught in the middle without paychecks, he blamed Democrats after all, singling out their leaders, Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and Senator Chuck Schumer of New York. “At this point it has become their, and the Democrats, fault!” he wrote on Twitter.
On Tuesday, he switched gears again and took responsibility.
“I accepted the first one, and I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished because people learned during that shutdown all about the problems coming in from the southern border,” he said. “I accept it. I’ve always accepted it. But this one, I would never accept it if it happens, but I don’t think it’s going to happen. But this would be totally on the Democrats.”
Republican leaders, including Mr. McConnell, have embraced the newly brokered agreement as the best they can get to avoid another government shutdown by a Friday deadline. But conservative figures have protested loudly. “Any Republican that supports this garbage compromise, you’ll have to explain,” Sean Hannity, the Fox News host who is close to Mr. Trump, warned on air on Monday night.
As Mr. Trump weighed his options, one person familiar with his thinking described him as frustrated by months of Republicans not doing what he hoped to see done at the border. Conservatives saw the deal as a capitulation by the Republican leadership, one that put Mr. Trump in a difficult spot.
A few weeks ago, in a meeting with restrictionist immigration group leaders, Mr. Trump faulted the former Speaker Paul D. Ryan, a fellow Republican, for repeatedly deferring action on the wall, with promises of doing it down the road. “Now he’s out fishing!” Mr. Trump declared, according to an attendee.
The agreement includes a provision that could give the Trump administration broad discretion to increase the number of slots to shelter detained migrants, a win for Republicans that could ease the sting of Mr. Trump’s failure to secure full funding for his border wall.
On its face, Monday’s agreement, which still requires passage by both houses of Congress and approval by the president, authorizes the Department of Homeland Security to fund about 40,000 detention “beds,” many of them in facilities run by for-profit companies and Immigration and Customs Enforcement itself near the border in Texas, Arizona and California.
In background briefings on the deal, House Democratic aides described the language as a “glide path” from the current level of 49,000 detention beds back down to Obama-era levels of 35,000 or lower.
But a summary of the provisions drafted by Republican staff members on the Senate Appropriations Committee presents a different picture, and one that could be a victory for the White House in an otherwise drab and wall-free deal. The document, provided by an aide to a senator who was reviewing the compromise, places the average number of beds funded under the deal at a much higher number — 45,274, including 2,500 slots for families.
And that number could rise to as many as 58,500 beds, Republican aides claimed in their internal communications. That is because federal cabinet departments have some latitude in how they use funds.
Republicans put the deal in the best light as they sought the president’s approval.
“The notion that Congress shouldn’t spend more than one dollar on new border barriers, and the idea that we should impose a hard, statutory cap on ICE detainees in the interior of the country which would require the release of criminals into the United States” were rejected, Mr. McConnell said in a statement on Tuesday.
Democrats played down the Republican notion that the deal gave expansive leeway to the Department of Homeland Security to move funding around to increase detention facilities.
“The only way the Trump administration will be able to ratchet up the number of detention beds is if they choose to steal funding that Congress has directed to other D.H.S. components for important Homeland Security activities,” said Evan Hollander, a spokesman for House Appropriations Committee Democrats. “Transferring funds away from national security is a reckless course that will make the country less safe.”
Under the complex funding formula in the agreement, officials at the Department of Homeland Security, the parent department of ICE, would have “reprogramming authority” to transfer as much as $750 million from other Homeland Security programs into the detention program.
“In short, there is more than enough flexibility for ICE to respond to any forthcoming surges in illegal immigrations and apprehensions,” the document’s authors wrote.
Two Democratic aides with direct knowledge of the deal said the Republican memo was accurate in theory, but added that such a drastic expansion in the number of beds was unlikely because it would require taking funds from other important programs in the Department of Homeland Security, such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s disaster relief funds.
Democrats on the committee that hashed out the deal, under pressure from immigrant rights groups and the ascendant liberal wing of the party, stalled the talks over the weekend by demanding that any deal include a cap, at 16,500, on the number of beds dedicated to housing detainees apprehended through sweeps of communities away from the border. There are currently 20,000 such slots.
Immigrants rights advocates have not opposed the deal, but some expressed disappointment that Democratic leaders could not drive a harder bargain on ICE detentions.
“For the last two years, we’ve been in a defensive posture, working to hold the line and prevent the bad, but now House Democrats have the power to start doing good,” said Lorella Praeli, the deputy national political director of the American Civil Liberties Union, which has sued the Trump administration over its detention policies.
On the other side of the ideological divide, Representative Tom Graves, Republican of Georgia and one of the 17 House and Senate lawmakers negotiating a deal, said on Twitter that he had not signed off or seen a final agreement, but “based on the reports, I have concerns. Lots of questions too.”
Senator Richard C. Shelby of Alabama, the Republican chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee and one of four lawmakers who hammered out the accord, said he was not worried about objections from the right.
“In some areas, we got probably got more than a lot of people expected, and in some areas we didn’t get as much,” he said. “But that’s the nature of the beast.”
Leaders in both parties anticipated that they would be able to overcome resistance from their flanks. “Will everyone vote for it? No,” said Senator Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the ranking Democratic on the Appropriations Committee. “Will a majority vote for it? Yes.”