At Mar-a-Lago, Trump hears from immigration hardliners
Retreating from the White House for a three-night stay at his Florida estate, President Donald Trump heard this weekend from a parade of allies -- many on the Fox News payroll -- that his base believes he is softening on immigration.
It was one takeaway from a long holiday break, during which Trump surrounded himself with the type of unwavering allies he’s struggled to find in Washington, people familiar with their conversations said. Facing a variety of sticky decisions, and without many senior-level aides, Trump sought the counsel of those he believes speak for the voters who elected him President.
His conversations -- including on Saturday with Jeanine Pirro, who has previously rankled some senior White House aides for her ardent views on the Russia investigation -- led up to a burst of tweets on Sunday and Monday morning in which Trump blamed Democrats for weak immigration policies. He said Democrats prevented a deal on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, he threatened to pull out of the North American Free Trade Agreement if Mexico doesn’t step up its immigration policies and said his border wall was needed more urgently than ever.
“Our country is being stolen” due to the “massive inflow of drugs and people,” Trump tweeted Monday morning.
“DACA is dead because the Democrats didn’t care or act, and now everyone wants to get onto the DACA bandwagon... No longer works. Must build Wall and secure our borders with proper Border legislation. Democrats want No Borders, hence drugs and crime!” he added.
The messages were a reflection of Trump’s ongoing frustration that more progress hasn’t yet been made on the wall, his chief campaign promise. He has continued to rail at being cornered into signing an omnibus spending bill that included only a small amount of funding for the border wall. And he’s noticed with chagrin the vocal criticism of Ann Coulter, the right-wing firebrand who has publicly censured Trump for falling short on his immigration promises.
Multiple people raised Coulter’s scaled-up denunciations to the President in his conversations over the weekend. Pirro, who filled in last week for fellow Fox host Sean Hannity -- who himself spent hours with Trump over the weekend at his golf course and Mar-a-Lago -- interviewed Coulter last weekend.
Pirro and Hannity are both immigration hardliners, and made known to Trump that his party’s successes in upcoming midterm elections will depend on him being able to tout successes on the border wall.
A third Fox News hand, former executive Bill Shine, rounded out the channel’s presence at Trump’s club. Shine had been in Trump’s sights to replace Hope Hicks as White House communications director, but has told the President he isn’t interested.
Not at the estate was John Kelly, Trump’s chief of staff who has worked to limit the voices with access to the President, at least when he’s working from the Oval Office. Four people who spoke with Trump over the weekend said the President didn’t mention Kelly in their conversations.
Those people described Trump as generally upbeat, at least when he appeared in public or with friends. He was seen frequently with first lady Melania Trump, with whom he was reunited after she spent the past week in Florida, as is her tradition for spring break, along with his children. And he engaged a variety of old allies, including controversial boxing promoter Don King; Bernie Kerik, the former NYPD commissioner who served time in jail; and Mike Lindell, the founder of the My Pillow company and a vocal Trump supporter.
His tweets on Sunday and Monday, however, belied any cheer.
“These big flows of people are all trying to take advantage of DACA. They want in on the act!” he wrote on Sunday, making plain his tenuous grasp on the details of the DACA program, which doesn’t apply to new immigrants.
He also called on Republicans to change the Senate rules to make it easier to pass immigration legislation suitable to his tastes, and indicated the prospects of a deal with Democrats were over.
“NO MORE DACA DEAL!” he declared.
In reality, the White House has largely put negotiations over DACA on the back burner as the program is reviewed by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. The Supreme Court declined last month to take up the Trump administration’s appeal of a federal judge’s ruling that would require the government to maintain the program.
Trump’s annoyance over the issue was exacerbated by reports -- aired extensively on Fox News -- of a “caravan” of Central Americans trekking from the Mexico-Honduras border to the United States. Shortly after a segment on Sunday’s edition of “Fox & Friends,” Trump ominously warned the situation is “Getting more dangerous” and that ”‘Caravans’ coming.”
Later, as he entered the gothic stone Bethesda-by-the-Sea church for Easter services, he called on Mexico to step up its patrols.
“Mexico has got to help us at the border. If they’re not going to help us at the border, it’s a very sad thing between our two countries,” he said.
The immigration issue has caused a wedge between Trump and his Mexican counterpart, Enrique Peña Nieto. The two men have engaged in tense phone calls over payment for the wall, which Trump has insisted will come from Mexico. The acrimony caused Peña Nieto to cancel plans for a visit to Washington earlier this year.
But the two men may come face to face in a matter of weeks when Trump travels to Peru for the Summit of the Americas, a gathering of leaders from South, Central and North America. His hard-line immigration stances are expected to cause tensions with fellow leaders.
CNN’s Kevin Liptak contributed to this report.