Kelly calls some of Trump’s campaign pledges on immigration, wall ‘uninformed,’ meeting attendees say

President Trump’s chief of staff, John F. Kelly, has brought discipline to the White House, sometimes to the frustration of Trump. (Bastien Inzaurralde/The Washington Post)

White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly told Democratic lawmakers Wednesday that Mexico will never pay for a wall built by the United States along the entire stretch of the U.S.-Mexico border and that some of Donald Trump’s campaign promises on immigration were “uninformed,” according to lawmakers who attended the meeting.

The remarks put Kelly at odds with President Trump, who has repeatedly vowed to build a border wall that will be paid for by Mexico rather than U.S. taxpayers. Kelly’s statements also add to the mixed signals on immigration sent by the White House in the months since Trump in September announced the end of an Obama-era program protecting young immigrant “dreamers.”

Democrats and Republicans have warned in recent days that Trump is not clearly stating what he wants as part of a deal to replace the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, and bolster security along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Kelly’s comments were made in a closed-door session at the Capitol with members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.). This account of the meeting is based on notes taken by two lawmakers in the room that were confirmed by two additional lawmakers in the room and one senior aide in attendance.

In a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal, Trump said that Mexico would pay for the wall through the North American Free Trade Agreement. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, who succeeded Kelly in the role, did not answer questions at a Senate hearing Tuesday about whether the administration has a plan for Mexico to pay for the wall’s construction.

In his fourth face-to-face meeting with members of the Hispanic Caucus, Kelly repeatedly said that Trump supports enacting permanent legal protections for dreamers and that he has helped the president evolve on immigration policy. But the meeting ended with no resolution to what exactly the administration wants in exchange for authorizing permanent legal protections for the at least 690,000 people enrolled in the program, according to several attendees.

“The president is committed to a permanent solution to DACA,” Kelly said at the meeting.

White House aides did not return requests for comment. In an interview with Fox News on Wednesday evening, Kelly confirmed his comments, saying that “there’s been an evolutionary process that this president has gone through” on immigration policy.

“He has evolved in the way he looks at things,” Kelly told Fox. “Campaign to governing are two different things, and this president has been very flexible in terms of what’s in the realm of the possible.”

President Trump said on Jan. 10 that any deal that Congress reaches about immigration issues has “got to include the wall” that he’s pledged to build on the southern border. (The Washington Post)

As the meeting began, Kelly said he had asked to meet with the group at the urging of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who has been in frequent contact with Kelly over the past several months and told him that the group is critical to reaching a deal.

Hoyer told Kelly later that the views expressed by lawmakers in the room represent “the will of the Democratic Caucus” — a reminder that House Democrats overwhelmingly support protecting dreamers and strongly oppose Trump’s calls for stricter border protections.

Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.), who chairs the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, also attended the meeting.

In a bid to assure the group that he understands their concerns, Kelly said that Hispanic Caucus members should be grateful that DACA wasn’t ended immediately in September when Trump set a six-month expiration date for the program.

“I worked to get the six-month extension of DACA,” he told the group. “I ordered that. I managed that. And everyone has thanked me for that.”

Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Calif.), the original sponsor of the Dream Act that would permanently legalize at least 690,000 dreamers, asked Kelly to clarify Trump’s definition of a border wall.

“Certain things are said during the campaign that are uninformed,” Kelly said.

“One thing is to campaign. Another thing is to govern. It’s really hard,” he added later.

“A concrete wall from sea to shining sea” is not going to happen, Kelly said. Instead, “a physical barrier in many places” is what the administration is requesting. Kelly used the term “physical barrier” several times during the meeting, attendees said.

“Concrete wall is not a realistic solution in many places,” Kelly said, noting that topography, among other issues, makes building a wall difficult along certain parts of the 2,100-plus-mile border between the United States and Mexico.

Instead, “we need 700 more miles of barrier,” Kelly said — a concession that a physical barrier does not need to stretch the entire length of the border.

“Concrete wall would be good in only certain places,” he added, saying that manpower and drone technology should suffice in some parts.

Kelly also said that there will be no wall “that Mexico will pay for.”

In the Fox interview, Kelly said that the administration is pursuing ways to reap funding for wall construction through the renegotiation of NAFTA.

“In one way or another, it’s possible that we could get the revenue from Mexico, but not directly from their government,” he said.

After serving as homeland security secretary and commander of U.S. military forces in Latin America, Kelly told lawmakers that he has helped Trump “evolve on issues of the wall.”

“I had a lot to do with that,” he said of Trump’s change in position regarding border security.

“He campaigned against DACA,” Kelly said of Trump, but since then, “he’s lightened up.”

Kelly and Nielsen have been privately complaining about Trump’s campaign promise to build a wall as ill-advised since their early days in the administration, when Kelly was homeland security secretary and Nielsen was his senior adviser, according to a person familiar with their discussions.

During the meeting, Kelly said that the Trump administration continues pushing for more border security in part because cartels are still successfully transporting illegal drugs across the Mexican border.

“Drug cartels will always find a way to get their drugs in so long as there’s demand in the U.S.,” Kelly said. He then added that leaders of drug cartels “are very smart and good businessmen.”

That comment piqued the interest of several lawmakers in attendance, who said later that they found it odd that Kelly would credit cartel leaders who often authorize murders as smart or good businessmen.

As the conversation continued, Hispanic Caucus members asked Kelly for his assessment of a bipartisan plan brokered by Sens. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and others. One Democrat in the room told Kelly that Graham has secured the support of at least 10 Republican senators — a sign that the plan might succeed.

But Kelly seemed unimpressed by the deal, attendees said, telling the group that Graham and Durbin have always agreed on immigration matters. What would be more impressive, Kelly suggested, is if Hispanic Caucus members worked with conservatives such as Sens. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and David Perdue (R-Ga.) and Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee who introduced an immigration proposal last week.

Aides to Graham did not respond to requests for comment about how many GOP senators are co-sponsoring the immigration plan. Durbin told reporters Wednesday that at least six Republicans will publicly co-sponsor their plan once it is formally introduced as legislation.

Hispanic Caucus members asked Kelly what he thought of another bipartisan deal introduced Tuesday by Reps. Will Hurd (R-Tex.), Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.) and other members. The measure would provide legal protections for dreamers and authorize funding for border security that would be a mix of wall, fencing, security technology and more manpower.

Kelly said he knew nothing about the bill — a comment that stunned some attendees, because Hurd and Aguilar have spent weeks amassing 50 original co-sponsors from both parties.

Emerging from the meeting, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) described the exchange as “a regurgitation of both sides, but I didn’t get a sense that the administration has a clear bottom line that gets us to where we need to be.”

Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D-N.Y.) added that after weeks of believing that Congress must pass a stand-alone bill that legalizes the status of dreamers, the Hispanic Caucus now supports bipartisan plans to formalize their status and enact changes in border security. The new proposal by Hurd and Aguilar and the bipartisan deal brokered by senators “are the two pathways that we feel are probable to resolving these issues.”

Once the issues of dreamers and border security are resolved, Kelly said during the meeting, he expects the administration and Congress to work together on the future of people with temporary protected status. In recent weeks, the administration has announced the end of temporary protections for hundreds of thousands of people from El Salvador, Haiti and Nicaragua who are living in the United States after natural disasters or violence in those countries.

But Kelly’s comments signaled to members present in the room that Kelly doesn’t fully comprehend how TPS works.

“We have to figure out who the heck is still here,” Kelly said. “Where are the great Central Americans? How many of them are dead? How many of them went back?”

People living in the United States with TPS must register with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and provide basic information on their place of residence and marital and employment status. But they are not required to check in regularly with the agency to update their status or notify it if they are moving back to their home country.

As the meeting ended, one longtime Hispanic Caucus member sought to make peace with Kelly.

Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.), a vocal opponent of Trump and and outspoken proponent of a comprehensive immigration overhaul, apologized directly to Kelly for comments he made in the fall.

In several appearances and interviews, Gutiérrez called the former Marine general “mean,” a “hypocrite” and “a disgrace to the uniform he used to wear” because he supported the end of DACA.

Seated next to Kelly, Gutierrez apologized, and Kelly accepted the apology.

“We all say or do stupid things,” Kelly told the group.

As Kelly got up to leave, he turned again to Gutiérrez, squeezed the congressman’s right shoulder and thanked him again for the apology.

“It means a lot,” Kelly told Gutiérrez.

Powered by WPeMatico