Donald Trump’s latest fling with Democrats has plunged the Republican Party into a state of confusion and outrage that far surpasses the frustration with his debt ceiling deal with the minority last week.
While GOP leaders were able to brush off the debt pact as no big deal, after Thursday they were reminding the president that they — not the Democrats — run Congress. Though they differed on whether to bill it as a deal, Trump and Democratic leaders Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi agreed in some fashion that they want to shield so-called Dreamers from deportation and beef up border security, leaving the fight over the border wall for later.
That left Republicans grappling with a frightening new potential reality: that Trump will cut controversial deals with Democrats and leave them to pick up the pieces.
“As a practical matter, 533 other members of Congress are going to want to weigh in on the topic. Schumer and Pelosi, they didn’t have an agreement on the details,” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas). “But even if they did have an agreement, it’s not binding on anyone else.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell icily dismissed the Trump-Schumer-Pelosi talks, saying he looks “forward to receiving the Trump administration’s legislative proposal.” House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said there “was a discussion, not an agreement.”
Trump spoke to McConnell on Thursday morning, Republicans said, and while he said he spoke to Ryan about the agreement, sources in the House said he did not tell GOP leaders he planned to take the wall off the table.
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) suggested Trump was duped by Democrats’ rush to declare a deal, and that the president didn’t actually agree to set aside funding for his prized border wall.
“One side runs out and tries to frame what was said in there and then he has to go out and clarify. That’s not healthy,” McCarthy said.
Still, Trump’s exasperation with GOP leadership is boiling over. After watching the Obamacare repeal effort crash and burn after seven months of work, two weeks of talks with Democrats have yielded far more action. Trump has signaled that he wants the talks to continue, and a person familiar with Wednesday night’s meeting described it as “jovial” and far more pleasant than meetings with GOP leaders.
A senior White House official said Trump doesn’t think the current Republican leadership has gotten much done and wants to change that. “He’s not OK saying, ‘Oh, we’re just not doing anything,'” this person said.
“It’s a process I’ve never seen before,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). “He was frustrated that a Republican majority has not achieved the goals he wants to. So he is spending time with, as he calls them, Chuck and Nancy.”
Republicans spent Thursday trying to pull Trump back from a deal that would not provide wall funding. And Trump at times walked back his initial confirmations of an agreement on the Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals programs.
Still, it was not the first time Trump has been enamored with Democratic talk about an immigration “deal.”
In February, at a meeting with bipartisan senators, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) raised the idea of immigration reform and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) floated the idea of a 2013 Gang of Eight bill. As Trump expressed interest, opponents of the comprehensive immigration reform bill such as Republicans Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Cornyn steered the president back on course, reminding him of his campaign promises.
“Cornyn’s like: ‘No, no, no, you campaigned against that bill,” recalled a senator in attendance. “And Grassley’s like: ‘No.’”
That scene was playing out again on Thursday, as Republicans frantically sought more information from the White House and bashed the framework as presented by Democrats. Stephen Miller, an architect of Trump’s hard-line immigration policies, expressed displeasure about the development to other White House and legislative aides and strategized about what to do next, according to people familiar with the calls.
White House officials likewise spent Thursday trying to assuage conservatives on Capitol Hill.
“There’s no deal on DACA right now that I know about,” said Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.), who has a bill endorsed by Trump to limit some legal immigration. Asked if he would support the DACA fix for enhanced border security, he said: “No. No. Not in anybody’s universe. And I don’t think most Republicans would either.”
Even with the wall, a deal on legalizing young immigrants wouldn’t pass muster with some conservative lawmakers.
“There would have to be a whole lot more than just building a wall before I give amnesty to illegal aliens who are going to take jobs from American citizens,” griped Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.).
That Republicans are being forced to deny a deal that Democrats said they cut with Trump is remarkable in and of itself. The majority party, made up of dozens of Republicans that have stood by Trump this year despite being plagued with controversy, should in theory be working hand-in-glove with the president on moving legislative priorities.
Instead Republicans, including some of his presidential rivals, are now staring at one of their worst fears: that the ideologically nebulous president is shifting toward the center.
“I don’t think there’s anything wrong necessarily with talking with the other side. But, there are bedrock sort of basic principles that you’ve got to be careful you don’t give up,” said Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.).
Privately, GOP leaders believe Trump did just that. They’re furious that he would try to take such a big bargaining chip — the wall — off the table without first seeking their advice. And they are fuming that the president didn’t consult them first.
“This is what happens when you deal with the other side and you try to work around the deal-makers that need to be in the room,” said one senior House Republican source familiar with leadership’s thinking. “The people that set the floor schedule and represent the majority in the House were not included.”
A Senate GOP aide saw one bright spot: Trump’s ownership of the deal means that he will have to write legislation — perhaps with Schumer and Pelosi — and then send it to the GOP-led Congress for scrutiny. Such an exercise would face many pitfalls, while allowing McConnell and Ryan to repeatedly point toward the White House when asked about the details.
“Congress will fill in all the unpopular stuff? That’s not going to happen,” said a person close to Senate leadership. “If you want to write amnesty legislation, send us the bill. We’ll take a look.”
This person said McConnell was less angry and more bemused about the whole situation and would prefer to focus on other issues.
Some Republicans are perplexed that Trump is prioritizing a DACA deal with Democrats over one last shot at Obamacare, which can be repealed on party lines for just two more weeks.
“We’ve got six months to deal with DACA. We’ve got 17 days to deal with this,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).
Other Republicans said Trump’s problem is he doesn’t know policy, which potentially makes any agreements he makes with Democrats easy to strike around a dinner table but much more perilous once they are written into legislation. Trump’s travel ban, for example, ran into huge problems over its drafting, and his statements on health care often were counterproductive to the party’s efforts.
One person close to Trump said the latest deal-making could be just a way to change the narrative about a lack of accomplishments and “get himself out of a jam.” But he also focuses intently on news media coverage and has told associates that it has improved in recent days since he began working with Pelosi and Schumer.
Regardless, the anger between Trump and the GOP is now flowing both ways.
For months, Republicans defended Trump’s controversial comments and the president himself amid the growing Russia investigations, confident at least that he would work with them on conservative legislation.
Now, Republicans say, they aren’t sure.
John Bresnahan and Kyle Cheney contributed to this report.
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