WASHINGTON – The border wall looms large for President Donald Trump.
Aboard Air Force One last week, talking with reporters en route to Paris, he ruminated about the wall of his dreams – 700 to 900 miles long, with transparent sections so that border agents aren’t hit on the head by “large stacks of drugs” tossed over from the Mexican side, and outfitted with solar panels.
And no, Trump insisted, he was “not joking.”
“There is a very good chance we can do a solar wall,” he said, “which would actually look good.”
The president began promoting the idea, aides explained, after a business acquaintance pitched it in one of the many conversations he has with friends – yet another example of how Trump often outsources his policy process, including an eagerness to entertain creative, even pie-in-the-sky notions.
Trump is often dismissed by critics as a chief executive uninterested in the policy process, unwilling to delve into minutiae and impatient with the pace of governing. He has been largely absent from arm-twisting on Capitol Hill, remote in interacting with many of his Cabinet secretaries and remiss in the public salesmanship of big-ticket policy items – most recently on the GOP health-care plan that collapsed this week in the Senate.
But on immigration – a challenge that has vexed presidents since Ronald Reagan and a theme that has occupied Trump for decades – the 45th president has been heavily engaged in the administration’s roiling debate. Officials credit him for being relentless in framing illegal immigration as a threat to public safety and to the economic security of American workers, and for turning a border wall into a populist rallying cry.
This portrait of Trump as a policymaker at the six-month mark of his presidency – culled from interviews with two dozen top administration officials, key lawmakers and other senior Republicans – shows a president driven by gut feelings, happy to mostly skim the surface but occasionally engrossed in details.
“The president’s own opinion and his natural instincts on all of these issues is what will most likely be the default winner of the day, all the time,” said Reince Priebus, the White House chief of staff. “So the guiding light is always his vast experiences and his years of thought on these subjects.”
Advisers said the president has strong, instinctual opinions that are nonetheless loosely held on the details. Trump is proudly nonideological, but retains some key beliefs – especially on immigration, trade and national security. He defends his views vigorously, yet solicits alternative perspectives and can be persuaded to change his position.
“The president likes consulting a wide variety of people and viewpoints,” said Robert Porter, assistant to the president for policy coordination and the White House staff secretary. “He appreciates the back and forth. Sometimes it’s on paper with memos that he’ll read and ask for more information, and sometimes it’s in meetings, either formal structured meetings or more informal discussions.”
Trump is torn over how to address the status of the younger immigrants who were brought to the country illegally by their parents, colloquially known as “Dreamers,” who were protected by President Barack Obama’s administration. Debate about the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy aimed at this group has been among the most robust – and inconclusive – in Trump’s White House.
By contrast, Trump is far more certain about the wall. The structure could change in design or function – he vowed to build a much longer and higher wall during the campaign – but his security argument for it has remained constant.
“He campaigned on restoring the rule of law,” said Rep. Lou Barletta, R-Pa., an immigration hard-liner who was an early supporter of Trump’s campaign. “He never wavered, never backed off. He’s still doing what he said he was going to do.”
Yet for Trump, like his predecessors, the reality is that reforming the immigration system is unlikely to be achieved in a far-reaching bill. Any broad overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws would need the legislative buy-in of both parties, and there is widespread resistance to building a wall that many consider an ineffective boondoggle.
The White House still intends to fight hard for border wall funding in upcoming budget negotiations with Congress. Still, Trump appears resigned to trying to remake the immigration system through a combination of executive power and rhetoric.
“What I’d like to do is a comprehensive immigration plan,” he said last week, “but our country and political forces are not ready yet.”
– – –
“A nation without borders is not a nation,” Trump said five days after he took office in late January.
He was speaking at the Department of Homeland Security at a signing ceremony for two executive orders aimed at cracking down on illegal immigration. His troubled travel ban grabbed the headlines, but the two orders Trump signed that day represent his administration’s immigration blueprint so far – one beefing up border security and the other increasing interior enforcement with more agents and restrictions.
Leading the charge on immigration is Stephen Bannon, who ran the conservative Breitbart news website and now serves as Trump’s chief strategist, and Stephen Miller, Trump’s senior policy adviser who made his name as a young Capitol Hill aide championing hard-right immigration policies. “The two Stephens,” as colleagues sometimes refer to them, work with Julia Hahn, who had covered immigration for Breitbart and was hired in the West Wing by Bannon.
Like a businessman checking the status of a project, Trump demands regular updates, calling DHS Secretary John Kelly multiple times a week to check in, often with little or no notice.
More recently, Trump has focused his public remarks on the threat of a specific gang, MS-13, a Salvadoran cartel that has been active in the United States since the 1980s. Trump, who is from New York City, has been briefed about a rise in homicides on Long Island attributed to MS-13.
Aides said the tough rhetoric, along with stepping up immigration arrests, has paid dividends. The number of immigrants caught trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border illegally fell to a 17-year low in March, with fewer than 17,000 apprehended that month compared with nearly 60,000 in December, according to DHS.
“What we’ve simply said is, if you are an illegal alien in the United States, you should be concerned about being in the United States illegally,” Kelly said in an interview. “We know by polling that the Central Americans in particular are unsure of what’s happening. Consequently, they are less inclined to spend what amounts to be their life savings to come up to the United States.”
Trump’s bluster has had other consequences. After he threatened to impose a border tax on Mexican goods to pay for the wall, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto abruptly canceled a ceremonial visit to the White House. The administration’s ban on travelers from some majority-Muslim nations has been the persistent subject of both outrage and court challenges. And some immigrants who have served in the U.S. military under a promise of citizenship from the Pentagon have begun to flee the country for fear that they could be deported to dangerous homelands.
But Trump’s advisers view his immigration stance as savvy politics, reaffirmed by recent internal polling of 10 battleground states.
“Immigration policy affects every aspect of life – incomes, schools, hospitals, community resources,” Miller said. “Prioritizing the needs of American workers over powerful special interests is not merely a core issue for Republicans, but also independents and massive numbers of Democrats.”
– – –
Trump – a known germaphobe – is not a natural hugger. But every time he meets “angel moms,” whose children have been killed by illegal immigrants, they expect to receive an embrace from the president.
They have become the emotional touchstone of his immigration crusade.
Michelle Wilson-Root of Iowa had arrived at her Washington hotel three weeks ago to lobby against illegal immigration when her cellphone rang. On the line was Hahn, who had written for Breitbart about Wilson-Root’s daughter, Sarah, 19, who was killed last year in a car crash caused by an illegal immigrant.
Now working for Bannon, Hahn invited Wilson-Root to the White House to join a roundtable with Trump about a pair of immigration bills. One measure would cut off some federal funding for so-called sanctuary cities, while the other – “Kate’s Law,” named after a San Francisco woman allegedly killed by an illegal immigrant – would impose stricter penalties on criminals who have repeatedly entered the country unlawfully.
In the Cabinet Room, Trump greeted Wilson-Root and her friend Mary Ann Mendoza, whose son was killed in a head-on vehicle collision with an intoxicated undocumented immigrant, with a round of hugs.
“Every time I met with him – I’m a hugger – it’s always been hugs,” Wilson-Root said.
The next day, the House approved both bills. They face a difficult path in the Senate, where the Republican majority is narrower, but the families said they are convinced that Trump will not forget them.
“He remembers each one of us every time he sees us, knows our stories, knows our children’s names,” Mendoza said. “He’s our advocate.”
Trump began his White House bid by labeling immigrants from Mexico as “criminals” and “rapists” – a stark departure from predecessors careful to characterize most undocumented immigrants as hard-working strivers. While Obama showcased Dreamers at State of the Union addresses, Trump invited angel families to sit in first lady Melania Trump’s box during his address to Congress in February.
Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, said the national conversation had long centered on how to help immigrants. President Trump, she said, “changed it to, ‘What’s fair to the American worker who’s competing with the illegal immigrant for the job? What’s fair to the local economy? What’s fair to our local resources – law enforcement, the school system, housing? What’s fair to a sovereign nation that needs physical borders that are respected?’ ”
– – – –
If the campaign rally chants came easy to Trump and his supporters, the next few months will prove more daunting as he attempts to implement an immigration agenda in the wake of the health-care fiasco and other legislative failures.
Sens. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., and David Perdue, R-Ga., have been working with the White House to introduce a bill by the end of the summer that would cut the current annual level of 1 million green cards by half in 10 years, largely by limiting visas for extended families of legal U.S. residents.
Cotton, who along with Perdue has met twice on immigration with Trump, said the legislation is popular in key states where Democratic senators are up for reelection in 2018.
“Donald Trump recognizes that it’s possible to be both pro-immigrant and to believe that immigration levels are too high and skewed against educated, high-skilled, English-speaking immigrants,” Cotton said.
The strategic thinking among administration members is that they can gain a political advantage on immigration once they begin talking about proposals publicly. The release of the Cotton-Perdue legislation, they hope, will mark the beginning of a public immigration pitch.
Meanwhile, Obama’s DACA policy, which has granted work permits to more than 750,000 Dreamers, offers its own emotional narrative and has led to one of the most fraught debates in the White House. The program is extremely popular among Latino and Asian groups, and ending it would produce fierce blowback.
The fight over how to handle DACA largely pits Miller, who vociferously opposes the program, against most other White House advisers, who, to varying degrees, take a less dogmatic approach. Some administration officials have privately griped that they wish Miller could be forbidden from briefing the president on the issue.
Many in the administration consider DACA a workforce issue, and one possible plan being championed is to wind down the program – and stop issuing new work permits – while also making clear that Dreamers would not be a deportation priority.
As with many issues, the most compelling argument for Trump is reminding him that a tough immigration stance was his core pledge to his base, several advisers said. Bannon has printed out the president’s statements from campaign rallies and shown them to him as a reminder.
Others in the White House – including Trump’s daughter Ivanka Trump, and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, both senior advisers – have helped connect business executives and technology titans who support robust immigration with Trump to make the economic case in support of Dreamers.
“It’s a decision that’s very, very hard to make,” Trump told reporters on Air Force One.
– – –
Trump in many respects faces the same challenge his predecessors did: How to balance security with pragmatism. It’s impossible, experts said, to deport all 11 million undocumented immigrants as Trump repeatedly promised during the campaign. His administration this week also nodded to the reality of employment trends when it authorized an additional 15,000 temporary work visas for lower-skilled immigrants over the next few months. Trump has employed such immigrants at his golf courses and other properties, drawing criticism.
And that is why some White House aides said the border wall is so important – it could be the symbolic victory that allows him more flexibility to forge a compromise on Dreamers and other immigration issues.
Trump sees a border fortress as the physical manifestation of his identity as a builder and dealmaker – a president able to construct the nation’s security almost by hand, and to somehow persuade Mexico to pay for it.
The president has been questioning aides about the lack of progress: When will Congress approve the funding? Where are the schematics? Will it be made of concrete or steel? Which firm will build it?
Kelly said he is taking seriously the president’s interest in an environmentally friendly solar wall, which White House aides think could make the project more difficult for Democrats to oppose.
“Certainly, if someone thinks they can hang solar panels on there and reduce the carbon emissions and sell energy both to Mexico and the United States and it benefits everybody, sounds like a good idea to me,” Kelly said.
Trump is so fixated on a physical wall that in May, White House press secretary Sean Spicer showed off photos of tall steel rods along the border, calling it a “bollard wall.” Many scoffed that it looked more like a fence, and the president himself, one adviser said, had little patience for the design.
“He’s like, ‘No, no, no, no, no, no, no, I didn’t say ‘bollard wall,’ ” recalled the adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share a candid conversation. “I said, ‘The wall. Build a wall. People think wall, they think bricks and cinder blocks.’ ”
The president, the policymaker, the real estate magnate, understood one thing in his gut: He had promised a wall, and now he needed to build one.
– – –
The Washington Post’s Joshua Partlow in Mexico City contributed to this report, which is part of a series looking at President Trump’s first six months in office.
– – –
The Washington Post’s Philip Rucker, Ashley Parker and David Nakamura look at what President Trump has done over the past six months to fulfill his pledge to build a border wall. (Video: Bastien Inzaurralde/Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)