Chief of staff John Kelly’s statements reinforce the chaos and indecision on immigration policy that have plagued the White House for several months.
WASHINGTON — White House chief of staff John Kelly told Democratic lawmakers Wednesday that the United States will never build a physical wall along the entire stretch of the U.S.-Mexico border and that some of President Donald Trump’s campaign promises on immigration were “uninformed.”
The comments put Kelly at odds with Trump, who repeatedly said during his presidential campaign that he would build a border wall that Mexico would pay for, not U.S. taxpayers. Kelly’s statements also reinforce the chaos and indecision on immigration policy that have plagued the White House for several months, since Trump announced the end of an Obama-era program protecting young immigrant Dreamers in September.
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 (DACA) program and bolster security along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Kelly’s comments, made in a closed-door session at the U.S. Capitol with members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., also show that senior administration officials know Trump will not be able to fulfill two key campaign promises: construction of a wall along the southern border that is paid for by Mexico.
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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.
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 on what exactly the administration wants in exchange for authorizing permanent legal protections for the at least 690,000 people enrolled in the DACA program, according to several attendees.
This account of the meeting is based on notes taken by two lawmakers in the room that were confirmed by two more lawmakers in the room and one senior aide in attendance.
White House officials didn’t return requests for comment.
In a bid to assure the group that he understands its concerns, Kelly said 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. I ordered that. I managed that. And everyone has thanked me for that,” he told the group.
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 also said there will be no wall “that Mexico will pay for.”
Kelly told lawmakers that he has helped Trump “evolve on issues of the wall.” “He campaigned against DACA,” Kelly added of Trump, but since then, “he’s lightened up.”