WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) – President Donald Trump directly contradicted his own chief of staff on Thursday (Jan 18) and said his position on building a wall between the United States and Mexico had not “evolved.”
Trump’s chief of staff, John F. Kelly, told some Democratic lawmakers on Wednesday that Trump had “evolved” on the issue of the wall, and that the president was not “fully informed” when he promised to build such a barrier last year.
In an early morning Twitter post, Trump took the unusual step of publicly pushing back against his own White House, signalling a disconnect between the president and his staff at a critical time of negotiations with Congress to avoid a government shutdown.
He wrote: “The Wall is the Wall, it has never changed or evolved from the first day I conceived of it. Parts will be, of necessity, see through and it was never intended to be built in areas where there is natural protection such as mountains, wastelands or tough rivers or water...”
He continued: “...The Wall will be paid for, directly or indirectly, or through longer term reimbursement, by Mexico, which has a ridiculous $71 billion dollar trade surplus with the US. The $20 billion dollar Wall is “peanuts” compared to what Mexico makes from the US. NAFTA is a bad joke!”
Kelly’s comments on Wednesday, which he made at a meeting with members of the Hispanic Caucus, were unusual as well. It is rare to see a White House chief of staff undercut a president’s public statements.
During the presidential campaign, Trump pledged to build a wall and have Mexico pay for it. Such a wall is estimated to cost billions of dollars. In one of his Twitter posts on Thursday, Trump restated his intention that Mexico would foot the bill.
Trump was livid when he learned that Kelly had described him as “evolving” in his immigration position, according to a person familiar with his thinking. Throughout the evening on Wednesday, Trump fielded calls from allies who described Kelly’s comments to Congress as undermining the president, stoking Trump’s fury.
The president – who never likes it when someone characterises his thinking – vented his anger to Kelly and to allies, according to the person familiar with the president’s thinking.
It was similar to a moment during the campaign in April of 2016, when Paul Manafort – who had just been hired to the Trump campaign – was caught on tape at a meeting with Republican National Committee members saying of Trump, “the part he’s been playing is evolving.”
When a president’s chief of staff speaks to members of Congress, it should be a “consistent message,” Democratic Representative Henry Cuellar said on Thursday in an interview with CNN. Cuellar, who attended Wednesday’s meeting with Kelly, said the inconsistency “makes it hard” to negotiate.
Lawmakers who attended the meeting on Wednesday described Kelly’s remarks. Democratic Representative Luis V. Gutierrez, who was at the meeting, said Kelly told the group that “a 50-foot wall from sea to shining sea isn’t what we’re going to build.”
Gutierrez told reporters that Kelly referenced Trump’s campaign promises to build a wall and said, “There were statements made about the wall that were not informed statements.”
In an interview with Fox News on Wednesday night, Kelly defended his comments to the Democratic lawmakers and said, “There’s been an evolutionary process that this president has gone through, as a campaign, and I pointed out to all of the members that were in the room that they all say things during the course of campaigns that may or may not be fully informed.”
Kelly also said the president has “evolved in the way he’s looked at things,” in reference to what should constitute a wall along the southern border.
Congress is currently working on a deal that would protect some 780,000 young immigrants from deportation. During the meeting on Wednesday, Kelly relayed confidence that negotiations would move forward for a permanent solution to preserve protections under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals programme, or Daca, the Obama-era policy that Trump moved in September to end.
In a Twitter post later on Thursday morning, Trump said there would be no such deal without a wall.
He wrote: “We need the Wall for the safety and security of our country. We need the Wall to help stop the massive inflow of drugs from Mexico, now rated the number one most dangerous country in the world. If there is no Wall, there is no Deal!”
The president had recently started to water down his statements about building a wall and told lawmakers last week that 3,000km of wall would not be needed because of natural barriers. The wall is estimated to cost US$18 billion (S$23 billion) over the next 10 years and cover 1,500km of the southern border, according to a spending plan submitted to Congress earlier this year.
The White House director of legislative affairs, Marc T. Short, pushed back against the Democrats’ accounts of Kelly’s remarks on Wednesday. “I don’t recall General Kelly saying the president was uninformed,” Short told CNN in an interview.
Accounts of what was said and by whom during recent high-level meetings on immigration policies have already hurt prospects for a broad spending and immigration deal to be achieved by Friday. Some participants in an Oval Office meeting last week said Trump called African nations “s***holes” in a discussion about immigration, reigniting concerns about the president’s racially tinged language about immigrants. Others said the president used the term “s***house.”
The absence of an agreement could lead to a government shutdown, a risk that Trump may have increased later on Thursday morning when he wrote another Twitter post that blew up Republican plans to keep the government running.
Democrats have said they will not support a government spending plan that does not address the fate of the young immigrants, known as Dreamers, who could face deportation as soon as March.
Trump’s morning Twitter posts and his anger with Kelly about his chief of staff’s remarks to lawmakers come after weeks of the president fielding complaints from allies and staff members about Kelly’s restrictive influence. Trump has heard repeatedly that Kelly is trying to isolate him, and that senior aides to the president are frustrated that they cannot speak directly to Trump and must go through a filter.
People have warned the president that he faces a massive staff exodus among senior officials, in part as a result of the working environment that Kelly has created.