President Donald Trump is in a fight over immigration — with himself.
Trump denied on Tuesday that he is “cleaning house” at the Department of Homeland Security. But on Wednesday, the White House was eyeing a replacement for a senior DHS official whose job congressional Republicans are trying to save.
The president has also said he has no plans to renew the administration’s highly controversial migrant child separation policy — even as officials throughout the administration weigh a plan to make arrested border-crossers choose whether to “voluntarily” separate from their kids.
And while Trump recently told senior aides that White House adviser Stephen Miller is his unofficial immigration czar, he told reporters on Wednesday that his son-in-law Jared Kushner would be out with an “exciting” immigration plan “soon.”
As the president faces blowback from his slow motion decapitation of the Department of Homeland Security, Trump is presenting two public faces on immigration. He is offering rhetoric that undersells the dramatic moves underway in his administration to curb illegal immigration and asylum seekers from entering the country. And he is toggling between Kushner, who has spent months fashioning an immigration package that can attract bipartisan support and appease the business community, and Miller, who as a Senate aide was notorious for killing legislation like that.
The two versions of Trump reflect an argument among his advisers that is part about policy and part about Trump’s 2020 re-election prospects. Some people close to Trump believe that he can only achieve results, and maintain the support of his base, by being a relentless battering ram on immigration. Others are pleading with him to moderate his tone, arguing that his base will follow him wherever he goes and noting that Trump’s harsh anti-immigration message in last year’s congressional midterms led to a House Republican wipeout (although the GOP did make small Senate gains).
But the overall result is mixed signals, contradictions, and confusion even among those who closely track Trump’s immigration policies. “I have no idea what’s going on” at the Department of Homeland Security, said Mark Krikorian, the executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a group that supports lower levels of immigration.
“There are two separate tracks, which makes it dysfunctional,” added a DHS employee.
The moves are consistent with Trump’s longtime approach to business and politics, where he has often reversed course, taken contradictory positions, and pitted his own aides against one another. It’s a model in which he alone is at the center of all activity, with top aides reporting directly to him instead of falling under a more hierarchical chain-of-command.
On immigration, hawks like Miller have been ascendant in recent months as detentions at the Southern border—a barometer of illegal immigration rates—have ticked up and the administration has proved unable to stem the tide. Trump advisers also say he constantly returns to bold promises he made about border security during the 2016 campaign.
“Potus ran on certain things, and most times people want him to do something outside of those campaign promises, they get slapped back,” said one senior administration official.
Trump’s frustration resulted first in a government shutdown in late December over a standoff over funding for his border wall, followed by recent threats to shut down the U.S.-Mexico border, and finally Sunday’s dismissal of his long-embattled Homeland Security Secretary, Kirstjen Nielsen. By Tuesday, Nielsen had announced that her deputy would resign, too. The acting director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement will leave Friday. And others, including the department’s general counsel, are said to be in the White House’s crosshairs. Miller is widely believed to have encouraged the shakeup.
But rather than boast that he was making decisive changes, as he has in the wake of other personnel shifts, Trump seemed to downplay ousters that startled even many of his Republican allies.
“I never said I’m cleaning house,” Trump said during a photo opportunity in the Oval Office with the Egyptian president Tuesday afternoon. “We’ve got a lot of good people over there. We have bad laws.”
And even as senior Republican lawmakers urged Trump not to fire Center for Immigration Services director Francis Cissna, a senior administration official on Wednesday said his job remained at risk, saying that part of the government needed a more effective manager.
Inside the White House, the president has sent mixed signals about who controls immigration policy. Since being tasked with hammering out a compromise deal to end the government shutdown this winter, the presidential son-in-law has convened dozens of meetings with members of congress and policy groups.
But Trump has at times discouraged Kushner’s efforts to chart a more moderate path on an issue that supercharges Trump’s GOP base but ranks lower for many Americans than priorities like health care and the economy.
In Miller’s presence, for instance, Trump has told Kushner that he is wasting his time by forging relationships with Mexican government officials. Kushner replied that Trump said the same thing when he was trying to hammer out a new North American trade agreement, in talks that produced a new deal over which Trump claimed a major victory.
And even after informally crowning Miller as his immigration point man during an Oval Office meeting, Trump has pushed Kushner to press on with his own immigration plan, though he told him to significantly broaden it to include border enforcement. The White House now hopes to put out a proposal in two weeks, according to one person familiar with the effort.
“Well we’ll talk to you about it soon,” Trump told reporters Wednesday when he was asked about Kushner’s plan, adding that it was: “very exciting, very important.”
Another White House official declined to comment on the timing of such an announcement.
But White House spokesman Hogan Gidley downplayed talk of divisions within the ranks.
“President Trump alone sets immigration policy that’s designed to solve the humanitarian crisis at our border, prevent illegal entry into our country and protect the American people – there’s no daylight between the President’s team as they work to implement that agenda,” Gidley said.
As the White House moves to crack down on the Southern border, the administration is also considering reviving a watered-down form of the child separation policy it abandoned last year. Not if you ask Trump, that is, who says not only that his administration isn’t considering the move, but that it never separated parents and children in the first place.
“I’m the one who stopped it,” Trump told reporters on Tuesday, falsely asserting that the Obama administration first instituted a policy of separating parents and children at the border. “Once you don’t have it, that’s why you see many more people coming. They are coming like it’s a picnic.”
But the administration is now considering a “binary choice policy” that would provide two options to migrant parents caught crossing the border illegally: Remain detained with their children indefinitely while awaiting a final removal order, or release their children into a separate government shelter where other relatives could take custody of them.
A senior administration official on Wednesday made a distinction between this binary choice option and the administration’s prior practice of forcefully separating migrant youth from their parents at the border.
“Binary choice is different. That’s up to the parent. That means we wouldn’t be separating anybody. The parent makes that decision,” the official said, on a day when the White House itself seemed to have a binary quality.