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With GOP flustered, White House aides try to clarify Trump's immigration comments

House GOP leaders hit pause on seeking out votes for a compromise immigration bill after the president said earlier Friday he would not sign it.
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WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump did not intend to suggest he would veto a House leadership-backed immigration bill during an interview Friday morning, White House aides are telling Republicans on Capitol Hill, according to a White House official and a senior House GOP aide.

Trump's remark immediately scuttled action on two bills that were headed for consideration on the House floor — a compromise measure endorsed by House leaders and a more conservative version written by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va.

Later Friday, more than seven hours after Trump said in an interview on "Fox and Friends" Friday morning that he "most certainly won't sign the more moderate one," the White House issued a public statement in an effort to clarify his position.

"The President fully supports both the Goodlatte bill and the House leadership bill," said Raj Shah, White House principal deputy press secretary. "In this morning's interview, he was commenting on the discharge petition in the House, and not the new package. He would sign either the Goodlatte or the leadership bills."

The House majority whip, Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., had been planning to gather support for the moderate measure on Friday, but a House GOP leadership source told NBC News that plan was being postponed while members seek clarity on the White House's position on the bill, with Republicans planning to return to the discussion next week.

House GOP Deputy Whip Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., said Friday the vote counting was on hold until then because presidential buy-in was essential. "House Republicans are not going to take on immigration without the support and endorsement of President Trump," he said before the White House had issued its clarifying statement.

The White House official who spoke to NBC News earlier said Trump supports the House holding votes on both bills, and the senior House GOP aide said some Republicans on Capitol Hill were viewing a subsequent Tweet from Trump outlining his requirements — all of which are in the leadership bill — as an indication that he would support it.

"The Democrats are forcing the breakup of families at the Border with their horrible and cruel legislative agenda. Any Immigration Bill MUST HAVE full funding for the Wall, end Catch & Release, Visa Lottery and Chain, and go to Merit Based Immigration. Go for it! WIN!" Trump Tweeted.

While proponents of the leadership bill pointed to the Tweet as evidence that Trump could support the measure — because his demands are met in the bill — other House Republicans may wait to see if the president offers a more clear walk-back of his comments on Fox or even an explicit endorsement of the compromise before they commit to it.

One conservative congressional source said the Tweet did little to make the president's position clear. "It doesn't read like a clarifier to me, but it's one of those things where people will take what they want from it," the source said. "If it was meant to be a walk-back, it's interestingly vague."

The new uncertainty comes just days after Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., told Republican members that the president had fully endorsed their decision to hold votes on both bills.

Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows, R-N.C., one of the negotiators of the compromise bill and a close ally of the president, said Friday that he had not urged the president to oppose the compromise bill. Meadows would not say if he supports the legislation, saying only that he’s “favorably disposed to the framework” that was discussed but that he had not read the bill yet.

Several House Republicans on Friday questioned whether Trump was aware of what's in the bill.

"I saw the interview, and I think that he was responding to the word 'moderate.' Everything he said about his concerns are all in that bill, and so I'm very disappointed and we just need to move on and support this legislation and I hope that the president reads the bill," said Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo.

Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., a moderate, told reporters, "I'm hoping that once (Trump) finishes looking at both bills that hopefully he'll realize that this is a good bill."

Others suggested that the bill would be in trouble without Trump.

"I think if the president doesn't support the moderate compromise, then there's no way that the moderate compromise will pass the House because I think (for) some conservative members, that will be sufficient reason not to vote for it," Rep. Ryan Costello, R-Pa., told NBC News.

Trump's threat shocked Capitol Hill, where leaders had stressed White House involvement in the process surrounding negotiations over the measure.

Ryan told his members earlier this week that he had spoken to Trump about the planned immigration strategy and that the president was excited about it. The bill itself was based on the president’s immigration plan, he said, saying at a press conference earlier this week that Republicans had been "working hand in glove with the administration on this."

The compromise bill released Thursday following two weeks of discussion includes provisions that would provide legal status for people who came to the U.S. illegally as children — including a path to citizenship — bar the separation of children from their parent or legal guardian at the border, and provide $25 billion in additional funding for a wall along the southern U.S. border.

Ryan has long made clear that he only wants to bring legislation up for a floor vote as long as the president will sign it.

"We now have a bill that represents a compromise that is going to be brought to the floor so members can actually vote on legislation tackling this issue and this has a chance of going into law," Ryan said Wednesday.

The decision to craft the compromise bill stemmed from negotiations that led to a deal between moderates and conservatives on Tuesday that would allow floor votes on the two measures next week. That strategy came in reaction to the threat of a discharge petition, though that effort failed to garner 218 signatures needed by the Tuesday deadline in order to trigger immigration floor votes this month.