WASHINGTON >> The calls began in the hours before Donald Trump took the oath of office.
The president-elect was attending a morning prayer service and many in the party were celebrating a long-awaited return to power. But incoming chief of staff Reince Priebus was in a van, parked outside St. John’s Episcopal Church, fielding phone calls from anxious Republicans all asking the same question:
What was the new president going to do about DACA?
The Inauguration Day worries about Trump’s campaign promise to “immediately terminate” the program that protects some young immigrants from deportation would soon turn into a quiet lobbying push from powerful Trump advisers, public pressure from business groups, a deadline from Republican state officials and a tug-of-war within the West Wing. After months of wrestling with a decision, Trump today declared he would slowly unwind the program — while he hoped Congress would do “something.”
Trump’s compromise was a public recognition of the political perils involved in scraping the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which had been instituted by outgoing President Barack Obama and protects nearly 800,000 young immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children. While the tough talk of abolishing an “amnesty” program may have fired up parts of the GOP base, the reality of potentially deporting young people proved deeply uncomfortable for a new president who has repeatedly insisted he wanted to show “heart.”
That political pain was part of what led lawmakers to dial Priebus on January 20. They wanted to know if Trump would address the program in his inaugural address. Some asked for Trump to re-evaluate, or at least delay, his decision, according to two people familiar with the contents of the calls.
Priebus didn’t make a firm commitment that day. But Trump would ultimately bow to the request.
The president’s second thoughts on DACA were surprising.
Since his inflammatory campaign kickoff speech at Trump Tower in June 2015, Trump had repeatedly vowed to eliminate the “illegal” program. It became a favorite talking point at his rallies, at times paired with his pledge to build an impenetrable border wall. And last August, he laid out his full immigration plan with a fiery speech in Phoenix in which he denounced DACA again.
Trump’s promise was backed firmly by chief strategist Steve Bannon and powerful policy guru Stephen Miller. And it was cheered by some conservatives and hard right news outlets such as Breitbart News.
After the election, Miller, Bannon and Attorney General Jeff Sessions pushed the president to move on DACA soon after taking office.
But Trump seemed to be drifting in the other direction. He started telling associates he was unsure how to proceed. He talked of wanting to put off a decision. He spoke publicly about being torn and seemed uncomfortable with the idea of being viewed as unsympathetic.
In an interview with ABC that aired five days after he took office, Trump said DACA recipients “shouldn’t be very worried.” During his first full-fledged solo White House news conference, he acknowledged the decision was “very difficult.”
“I love these kids, I love kids, I have kids and grandkids and I find it very, very hard doing what the law says exactly to do and, you know, the law is rough,” he said. “It’s rough — very, very rough.”
But even as Trump publicly agonized, the promise to terminate the program was not forgotten: It remained scribbled on a white board in Bannon’s office, on a list of the campaign promises-turned-policy goals.
A deadline would soon force the issue.
In June, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and Republican attorneys general from nine other states threatened to sue the federal government if it did not rescind DACA by September 5.
The lawsuit was always likely to be the turning point. In choosing Sessions as his attorney general, Trump put one of Washington’s strongest critics of illegal immigration at the helm of the Justice Department. It was highly unlikely that Sessions would ever defend the program’s constitutionality in court.
As the deadline approached, Sessions made that clear to Trump. In recent weeks, he told the president he did not believe the Justice Department could successfully argue the program was constitutional, a view also championed by his former Senate aide, Miller, according to two people familiar with their conversations with the president. Like others interviewed for this story, those people demanded anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss private conversations.
There was pressure on the other side. Jared Kushner, Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law, as well as economic adviser Gary Cohn lobbied Trump to keep DACA intact, although Cohn’s influence in the White House had waned after he criticized the president’s response to racial violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. Business leaders, including longtime Trump ally Rupert Murdoch, warned Trump that rescinding the program would hurt the nation’s economy and international reputation. At one point, White House officials discussed asking the state officials to push back their deadline — but Paxton said publicly he would not budge.
On Friday, before returning to Texas to inspect the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, Trump declared “We love the Dreamers” and teased his decision, saying he’d make his announcement by today.
In recent weeks, senior aides began crafting a plan that would take some of the pressure off and minimize backlash from Trump’s conservative base. Aides proposed putting the onus for the future of the program on Congress. Chief of Staff John Kelly, who replaced Priebus in July and had long urged lawmakers to come up with a legislative fix, helped put together the announcement: The White House would slowly end the program over six months and urge Congress to replace it with “something.” Trump did not say what that something was that he wanted done.
“The President wrestled with this decision all through the weekend,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said today.
But even as the White House moved to shift responsibility to Capitol Hill, Trump did not discuss the matter with House Speaker Paul Ryan, who reiterated his support for the so-called “dreamers” in an interview last week. Though the two men discussed DACA in the past, Trump did not reach out to Ryan to discuss his decision and the speaker did not try to talk to the president about it, according to two people familiar with their conversations.
And it was Sessions, not Trump, who made the formal announcement, declaring DACA “an unconstitutional exercise of authority” that must be revoked. Trump only appeared in public once today to discuss his hopes for a rewrite of the tax code.
“I have a love for these people and hopefully now Congress will be able to help them and do it properly,” he said when asked about the DACA decision.
And if Congress doesn’t act, he wrote later on Twitter, “I will revisit this issue!”