WASHINGTON – White House Chief of Staff John Kelly told Democratic lawmakers Wednesday that the United States will never construct a physical wall along the entire stretch of the U.S.-Mexico border and that some of President Trump's campaign promises on immigration were "uninformed."
The comments put Kelly at odds with Trump, who repeatedly said during his presidential campaign that he would build a border wall that Mexico would pay for, not U.S. taxpayers. Kelly's statements also reinforce the chaos and indecision over immigration policy that has plagued the White House for several months since Trump announced the end of an Obama-era program protecting young immigrant "dreamers" in September.
Democrats and Republicans have warned in recent days that Trump is not clearly stating what he wants as part of a deal to replace the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and bolster security along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Kelly's comments, made in a closed-door session at the U.S. Capitol with members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D., Md.), also show that senior administration officials know that Trump will not be able to fulfill two key campaign promises – the construction of a wall along the southern border that is paid for by Mexico.
In a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal, Trump said that Mexico would pay for the wall through the North American Free Trade Agreement. But Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, who succeeded Kelly in the role, did not answer questions at a Senate hearing on Tuesday about whether the administration has a plan for Mexico to pay for the wall's construction.
In his fourth face-to-face meeting with members of the Hispanic Caucus, Kelly repeatedly said that Trump supports enacting permanent legal protections for "dreamers" and that he has helped the president evolve on immigration policy. But the meeting ended with no resolution to what exactly the administration wants in exchange for authorizing permanent legal protections for the at least 690,000 people enrolled in the program, according to several attendees.
"The president is committed to a permanent solution to DACA," Kelly told the meeting.
This account of the meeting is based on notes taken by two lawmakers in the room that were confirmed by two more lawmakers in the room and one senior aide in attendance.
White House officials did not immediately return requests for comment.
As the meeting began, Kelly said he had asked to meet with the group at the urging of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.), who has been in frequent contact with Kelly over the last several months and told him that the group is critical to reaching a deal.
Hoyer told Kelly later that the views expressed by lawmakers in the room represent "the will of the Democratic Caucus" – a reminder that House Democrats overwhelmingly support protecting dreamers and strongly oppose Trump's calls for stricter border protections.
Rep. Judy Chu (D., Calif.), who chairs the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, also attended the meeting.
In a bid to assure the group that he understands their concerns, Kelly said that Hispanic Caucus members should be grateful that DACA wasn't ended immediately in September when Trump set a six-month expiration date for the program.
"I worked to get the six-month extension of DACA. I ordered that. I managed that. And everyone has thanked me for that," he told the group.
Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D., Calif.), the original sponsor of the Dream Act that would permanently legalize at least 690,000 dreamers, asked Kelly to clarify Trump's definition of a border wall.
"Certain things are said during the campaign that are uninformed," Kelly said.
"One thing is to campaign, another thing is to govern. It's really hard," he added later.
"A concrete wall from sea to shining sea" is not going to happen, Kelly said. Instead, "a physical barrier in many places" is what the administration is requesting. Kelly used the term "physical barrier" several times during the meeting, attendees said.
"Concrete wall is not a realistic solution in many places," Kelly said – noting that topography, among other issues, makes building a physical wall difficult along certain parts of the more than 2,100 miles between the United States and Mexico.
Instead, "we need 700 more miles of barrier," Kelly said – a concession that a physical barrier does not need to stretch the entire length of the border.
"Concrete wall would be good in only certain places," he added, saying that manpower and drone technology should suffice in some parts.
Kelly also said that there will be no wall "that Mexico will pay for."
After serving as homeland security secretary and commander of U.S. military forces in Latin America, Kelly told lawmakers, he has helped Trump "evolve on issues of the wall."
"I had a lot to do with that," he said of Trump's change in position regarding border security.
"He campaigned against DACA," Kelly said of Trump, but since then, "he's lightened up."
Kelly and Nielsen have been privately complaining about Trump's campaign promise to build a wall as ill-advised since their early days in the administration, when Kelly was homeland security secretary and Nielsen was his senior adviser, according to a person familiar with their discussions.
During the meeting, Kelly said that the Trump administration continues pushing for more border security in part because cartels are still successfully transporting illegal drugs across the Mexican border.
"Drug cartels will always find a way to get their drugs in so long as there's demand in the U.S.," Kelly said. He added that leaders of drug cartels "are very smart and good businessmen."
That comment piqued the interest of several lawmakers in attendance, who said later that they found it odd that Kelly would credit cartel leaders who often authorize murders as smart or good businessmen.
As the conversation continued, Hispanic Caucus members asked Kelly for his assessment of a bipartisan plan brokered by Sens. Richard J. Durbin (D., Ill.), Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.), Jeff Flake (R., Ariz.), and others. One Democrat in the room told Kelly that Graham has secured the support of at least 10 Republican senators – a sign that the plan might succeed.
But Kelly seemed unimpressed by the deal, attendees said, telling the group that Graham and Durbin have always agreed on immigration matters. What would be more impressive, Kelly suggested, is if Hispanic Caucus members worked with conservatives like Sens. Tom Cotton (R., Ark.) and David Perdue (R., Ga.), and Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R., Va.), the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, who introduced a conservative proposal on immigration reform last week.
Aides to Graham did not respond to requests for comment about how many GOP senators are co-sponsoring the immigration plan. But Durbin told reporters Wednesday that at least six Republicans will publicly co-sponsor their plan once it is formally introduced as legislation.
Hispanic Caucus members asked Kelly what he thought of another bipartisan deal introduced Tuesday by Reps. Will Hurd (R., Texas), Pete Aguilar (D., Calif.), and other members. The measure would provide legal protections for dreamers and authorize funding for border security that would be a mix of wall, fencing, security technology, and more manpower.
Kelly said he knew nothing about the bill – a comment that stunned some attendees, because Hurd and Aguilar have spent weeks amassing 50 original co-sponsors from both parties.
Emerging from the meeting, Sen. Robert Menendez (D., N.J.) described the exchange as "a regurgitation of both sides, but I didn't get a sense that the administration has a clear bottom line that gets us to where we need to be."
Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D., N.Y.) added that after weeks of believing that Congress must pass a stand-alone bill that legalizes the status of dreamers, the Hispanic Caucus now supports bipartisan plans to formalize their status and enact changes in border security. The new proposal by Hurd and Aguilar and the bipartisan deal brokered by senators "are the two pathways that we feel are probable to resolving these issues."
Once the issue of dreamers and border security is resolved, Kelly said during the meeting, he expects the administration and Congress to work together on the future of people with temporary protected status. In recent weeks, the administration has announced the end of temporary protections for hundreds of thousands of people from El Salvador, Haiti and Nicaragua who are living in the United States after natural disasters or violence in those countries.
But Kelly's comments signaled to members present in the room that Kelly doesn't fully comprehend how TPS works.
"We have to figure out who the heck is still here," Kelly said. "Where are the great Central Americans? How many of them are dead? How many of them went back?"
People living in the United States with TPS must register with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and provide basic information on their place of residence, and marital and employment status. But they are not required to check in regularly with the agency to update their status or if they are moving back to their home country.
As the meeting ended, one longtime Hispanic Caucus member sought to make peace with Kelly.
Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D., Ill.), a vocal opponent of Trump and outspoken proponent of comprehensive immigration reform, apologized directly to Kelly for comments he made in the fall.
In several appearances and interviews, Gutierrez called the former Marine general "mean," a "hypocrite," and "a disgrace to the uniform he used to wear" because he supported the end of DACA.
Seated next to Kelly, Gutierrez apologized, and Kelly accepted the apology.
"We all say or do stupid things," Kelly told the group.
As Kelly got up to leave, he turned again to Gutierrez, squeezed the congressman's right shoulder, and thanked him again for the apology.