WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump ignited eleventh-hour confusion Friday over Republican efforts to push immigration legislation through the House, saying he won’t sign a “moderate” package. He later seemed to back away from that, but the episode inflicted a potentially damaging blow and left uncertain whether GOP leaders would press ahead with votes next week.
The tumult erupted a few days before GOP leaders had planned campaign-season roll calls on a pair of Republican bills: a hard-right proposal and a middle-ground plan negotiated by the party’s conservative and moderate wings. Only the compromise bill would open a door to citizenship for young immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children, and ease the separation of children from their parents when families are detained crossing the border — a practice that has drawn bipartisan condemnation in recent days.
“I’m looking at both of them,” Trump said when asked on Fox News’ “Fox & Friends” about the two bills. “I certainly wouldn’t sign the more moderate one.”
Top congressional Republicans and White House aides struggled to understand Trump’s comment. Hours later, he tweeted that any bill “MUST HAVE” provisions financing his proposed wall with Mexico and curbing the existing legal immigration system. Those items are included in the middle-ground package.
“Go for it! WIN!” Trump wrote.
Trump stopped short of explicitly endorsing the middle-ground legislation, but a senior White House official said his tweet was designed to signal his support. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to address the matter publicly by name.
The official said Trump made his earlier comment because he thought his Fox interviewer had asked about an effort by GOP moderates — abandoned for now — that would have likely led to House passage of liberal-leaning bills party leaders oppose. The interviewer had specifically asked whether he would sign “either one” of the two bills Republicans lined up for votes next week.
Despite their policy clashes, both Republican factions have been eager for the votes to be held as a way to show constituents where they stand, and party leaders want to move on from an issue that divides the GOP and complicates their effort to retain House control in November’s elections.
Both the conservative and compromise bills would provide money for Trump’s long-sought border wall with Mexico and other strict border security provisions.
The middle-ground measure would mandate that families be kept together for as long as they are in the custody of the Homeland Security Department, whose agencies staff border facilities and enforce immigration laws.
While the more-conservative measure is seen as virtually certain to lose, party leaders have nurtured hopes that the compromise version could pass. Trump’s backing has been seen as crucial, and his apparent pullback would be an embarrassing setback.
Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., the GOP’s No. 2 vote counter, told reporters that leaders were seeking “clarity” from the White House after Trump made his comments on Fox. He also suggested that plans for votes next week were being reconsidered.
“House Republicans are not going to take on immigration without the support and endorsement of President Trump,” McHenry said.
GOP aides did immediately respond when asked whether Trump’s tweet meant votes would occur next week.