Before strategist Steve Bannon’s departure from the White House last month, aides to President Donald Trump quietly worried what kind of damage he would inflict from the outside. Some invoked President Lyndon Johnson, who infamously said he didn’t fire his FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover because “it’s probably better to have him inside the tent pissing out.”
The coming fight over the Obama-era immigration program protecting nearly 800,000 undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children — often referred to as Dreamers — will test that proposition. It’s the latest battle pitting the president’s conservative advisers against moderates in the White House and Congress — but the first in which Bannon is free to engage in open combat with fellow Republicans from the outside.
Story Continued Below
Trump has waffled on the issue for months, but Attorney General Jeff Sessions is expected to announce on Tuesday a plan to end the Deferred Action for Child Arrivals, or DACA, program, but to give Congress six months to find a legislative solution.
The president is buying himself time on a difficult matter and has complained privately to friends and associates that he has few good options. He doesn’t like ending the program for the “kids,” but also chafes at hearing that “New York Democrats” are powering his administration, according to several people who have spoken to the president in recent days.
That tension could manifest itself in a conflict between his former chief strategist, and other Trump campaign supporters and Republican leaders — a fight that mirrors another immigration battle that played out four years ago.
Bannon, who has reclaimed his post at the helm of Breitbart News and believes the fight over immigration propelled Trump to the presidency, has told associates he’s prepared to take on both House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell over immigration this fall.
What’s less clear is what will happen if Congress fails to act during the six-month window, and the issue comes back to Trump, potentially putting the president and Bannon at odds on a core issue.
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Trump promised to end DACA on the campaign trail but has demurred in office, saying as recently as Friday, “We think the Dreamers are terrific.” After months of seesawing, he remains reluctant to kill the program altogether – and people familiar with the president’s thinking say they expect the administration’s position, set to be formally announced by Sessions, to reflect that hesitancy by largely punting to lawmakers.
And a senior White House aide said that if Republican lawmakers fail to agree on a plan, he didn’t expect Trump to follow through on terminating DACA — a prospect that would test Bannon’s commitment to support his former boss from the outside.
Before Trump emerged as a political force in his own right, Bannon and Sessions worked to kill the 2013 Gang of Eight bill on immigration reform — a fight they believe set the stage for Trump’s meteoric rise in 2016.
Stephen Miller — then a senior Sessions aide and now the president’s chief domestic policy aide — wrote the Trump campaign’s immigration plan promising the termination of DACA, and has played a pivotal role inside the White House in pushing Trump to roll back the provision.
But ending the program, which grants two-year work permits to some undocumented immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as minors, would put the so-called Dreamers’ futures in the U.S. in jeopardy, a prospect that many on both the left and right view as unthinkable — and one that has given Trump himself pause in recent months.
The Tuesday announcement was forced by the legal threat dangled by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and nine of his AG colleagues who vowed to challenge DACA’s constitutionality in court if the federal government does not halt the issuance of work permits. Tennessee’s attorney general, however, has since announced that he won’t challenge the program in court.
But it was the counsel of Sessions, whom Trump was trashing publicly just six weeks ago, that ultimately convinced the president he had to act.
Both Sessions and Miller, who worked as a senior communications adviser to the former Alabama senator before joining the Trump campaign in January of 2016, have worked in tandem to persuade the president to upend DACA, framing the issue in terms he can relate to: victory versus defeat. They told Trump the administration was likely to lose if it defended DACA in court — and they suggested he’d look foolish if he did so, according to people familiar with the internal debate.
“I would be shocked if the Justice Department has not told Trump, ‘This executive order that we are litigating in Texas and that we have to stand up and take a position on is unconstitutional and we just don’t see how we can conscientiously defend it, even if you decide that’s what you want. We’ve got a constitutional handcuff here,” said a friend of Sessions’. “Jeff has been saying that back since he was a senator.”
Conservatives employed a similar strategy during the debate over the Paris climate deal. Though Trump was already inclined to pull out of the agreement, opponents of the deal including Bannon, members of the White House counsel’s office, and Scott Pruitt, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, argued privately that remaining in the pact could result in a series of legal hurdles that could make it more difficult to undo Obama’s climate regulations.
Trump has faced intense pressure to preserve DACA from the moment he took office. During a meeting at the White House soon after the election, Obama made a direct pitch to Trump to help the Dreamers, arguing he’d pay a heavy political price if they were rounded up and deported. That conversation appeared to resonate with Trump and in public comments in the following months he repeatedly sympathized with the undocumented immigrants who benefited from DACA.
News of Trump’s plan to phase out DACA has raised the ire of some Republicans in Congress, including Ryan, who called on the president to give Congress a chance to come up with a legislative fix. The decision to delay DACA’s death for six months is seen as an olive branch to members of Congress who want to hammer out a compromise.
White House staff worry that the DACA fight could further complicate an already thorny legislative calendar filled with government funding and debt ceiling deadlines, and they’ve privately raised doubts that Congress can reach agreement on the issue.
In the House, senior Republicans still believe there’s a possible deal to be struck with Democrats: codifying DACA in return for Trump’s sought-after border wall.
Rachael Bade and Seung Min Kim contributed to this report.