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Trump and his border wall remain biggest wild cards in immigration fight

by Chuck Todd, Mark Murray and Carrie Dann /

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First Read is your briefing from Meet the Press and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter.

WASHINGTON — As President Trump meets at the White House today with Democrats and Republicans to discuss immigration, it’s possible to see how they could eventually reach a deal on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (or DACA) that the Trump administration rescinded last fall.

The deal: Democrats, with leverage to use in the upcoming spending fight (because Republicans will need 60 votes to pass anything in the Senate), get to permanently protect the some 700,000 DACA recipients – in exchange for increases in border security and some changes in immigration law. And that COULD include funding for Trump’s border wall or something approximating it.

The challenges: Could Democrats support anything coming close to funding for a border wall? If not, how much leverage do Democrats really have, and how united are they? And are Republicans prepared to face the political consequences of a GOP White House scuttling a program that’s supported by 62 percent of the public, a majority of independents and even a plurality of Republicans, according to the December 2017 NBC/WSJ poll?

But the biggest challenge of all might be this: What, exactly, does Trump want here? Because he’s been all over the place on this issue:

DREAMers “have to go”

TODD: You'll rescind the Dream Act executive order, the DACA?TRUMP: We have to. We have to make a whole new set of standards. And when people come in, they have to come in --TODD: You're going to split up families. You're going to deport children?TRUMP: Chuck -- no, no. No, we're going to keep the families together. We have to keep the families together.TODD: But you're going to keep them together out--TRUMP: But they have to go. (Meet the Press, Aug. 16, 2015)

Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinds DACA on Sept. 5, 2017

“I am here today to announce that the program known as DACA that was effectuated under the Obama Administration is being rescinded... The effect of this unilateral executive amnesty, among other things, contributed to a surge of unaccompanied minors on the southern border that yielded terrible humanitarian consequences. It also denied jobs to hundreds of thousands of Americans by allowing those same jobs to go to illegal aliens.” (Sept. 5, 2017)

Trump: Congress can still save DACA

“Congress now has 6 months to legalize DACA (something the Obama Administration was unable to do). If they can't, I will revisit this issue!” (Trump tweet, Sept. 5, 2017)

I’d need “massive border security” to agree to DACA

“No deal was made last night on DACA. Massive border security would have to be agreed to in exchange for consent. Would be subject to vote… The WALL, which is already under construction in the form of new renovation of old and existing fences and walls, will continue to be built.” (Trump tweets, Sept. 14, 2017)

“Does anybody really want to throw out good, educated and accomplished young people?”

“Does anybody really want to throw out good, educated and accomplished young people who have jobs, some serving in the military? Really!.....” (Trump tweet, Sept. 14, 2017)

There’s no DACA without wall funding and an end to chained migration

“The Democrats have been told, and fully understand, that there can be no DACA without the desperately needed WALL at the Southern Border and an END to the horrible Chain Migration & ridiculous Lottery System of Immigration etc. We must protect our Country at all cost!” (Trump tweet, Dec. 29, 2017)

“Democrats are doing nothing for DACA”

“Democrats are doing nothing for DACA - just interested in politics. DACA activists and Hispanics will go hard against Dems, will start “falling in love” with Republicans and their President! We are about RESULTS” (Trump tweet, Jan. 2, 2018)

Administration asks for $18 billion to begin building the border wall

“The Trump administration has told lawmakers that it wants $18 billion over the next decade for the initial phase of a Mexico border wall, laying out for the first time a detailed financial blueprint for the president’s signature campaign promise.” (Washington Post, Jan. 5, 2018)

Did you all get that? DREAMers have to go, but don’t throw out good, educated and accomplished young people. First, massive border security is needed in exchange for DACA. Then, it’s border wall funding and an end to chained migration.

Bottom line: Out of all the sticking points in this DACA fight, President Trump — and what he wants — remain the biggest wild card. And you could argue that these changing demands and desires on DACA represent Trump trying to deliver on his wall promise from the campaign.

He’s boxed in, he’s tried to find other solutions, and now realizes that playing the DACA chip might be the best way to finally get the wall. Do Democrats play ball? It’s not a guaranteed win for either side.

Trump ends program benefiting 200,000 El Salvadorans living in U.S.

Adding to the potential complexities in the DACA battle is the Trump administration’s decision ordering 200,000 El Salvadorans living in the United States to leave. “Homeland security officials said that they were ending a humanitarian program, known as Temporary Protected Status, for Salvadorans who have been allowed to live and work legally in the United States since a pair of devastating earthquakes struck their country in 2001,” the New York Times writes.

More: “Salvadorans were by far the largest group of foreigners benefiting from temporary protected status, which shielded them from deportation if they had arrived in the United States illegally. The decision came just weeks after more than 45,000 Haitians lost protections granted after Haiti’s 2010 earthquake, and it suggested that others in the program, namely Hondurans, may soon lose them as well. Nicaraguans lost their protections last year.”

And here's more on the human impact of the decision, from NBC's Suzanne Gamboa.

North Korea to send athletes to South Korea’s Olympics

Meanwhile, here’s some good news overseas: “North Korea has agreed to send a delegation of officials and athletes to the Winter Olympic Games in South Korea next month. The breakthrough decision came Tuesday after the first high-level talks between the countries in more than two years,” per NBC News. “South Korean Deputy Unification Minister Chun Hae-sung said North Korea had accepted the South's request to send athletes to the Games, which open on Feb. 9 in PyeongChang some 50 miles from the border with the North.”

White House struggles to quash debate about Trump’s mental fitness

Returning to domestic affairs, the Washington Post writes that the Trump White House is struggling to respond to the constant talk of the president’s mental fitness. “Trump publicly waded into the debate spawned by a new book, ‘Fire and Fury’ — Michael Wolff’s inside account of the presidency — over the weekend by claiming on Twitter that he is ‘like, really smart’ and ‘a very stable genius.’ In doing so, the president underscored his administration’s response strategy — by being forceful and combative — while also undermining it by gleefully entering a debate his aides have tried to avoid.”

The Post adds, “Trump privately resents the now-regular chatter on cable television news shows about his mental health and views the issue as ‘an invented fact’ and ‘a joke,’ much like the Russia probe, according to one person who recently discussed it with him.”

Royce becomes sixth GOP retirement from district Clinton won or narrowly lost in 2016

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce, R-Calif., announced on Monday that he would not seek re-election, “boosting Democrats’ chances of winning his Southern California district as they work to regain control of the U.S. House this year,” the LA Times says.

By our count, Ed Royce becomes the sixth GOP retirement from a district that Hillary Clinton either won or narrowly lost in 2016:

  • Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (FL) -- Clinton 59%, Trump 39%

  • Dave Reichert (WA) -- Clinton 48%, Trump 45%

  • Charlie Dent (PA) -- Trump 52%, Clinton 44%

  • Dave Trott (MI) -- Trump 50%, Clinton 45%

  • Frank LoBiondo (NJ) -- Trump 50%, Clinton 46%

  • Ed Royce (CA) -- Clinton 52%, Trump 43%

And that number will grow to seven if/when Rep. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., officially announces her Senate bid. (Clinton won McSally’s district in 2016, 49%-44%.) Those seven retirements represent about a third of the 24 seats that Democrats need to net in 2018 to retake the House.

If you’re trying to score a political point about the national anthem at a football game, be sure you’re prepared

Finally, we’ll say this about President Trump’s appearance at the national anthem of the NCAA football championship: When you want to make a political point (about the national anthem at football games), and when everyone is watching, you need to be prepared.

And fact is — it clearly looked like he didn’t know some of the lyrics to the song.

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