President Donald Trump on Thursday said he was "fairly close" to a deal with congressional leaders to preserve protections for hundreds of thousands of young immigrants living illegally in America but is facing strong push back from his conservative base in the Republican party.
"We're working on a plan subject to getting massive border controls. We're working on a plan for DACA," he said referring to the federal program - Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals - for the young immigrants. People want to see that happen," Trump said. He added: "'I think we're fairly close but we have to get massive border security."
His promised wall along the U.S.-Mexico border would "come later," but would need to happen soon, he said. "If we don't have a wall, we're doing nothing," he added after landing in Southwest Florida to meet with Huricane Irma first responders.
Trump, in a series of early morning tweets, disputed the characterization a deal to protect the DACA recipients, known as Dreamers.
The supposed DACA agreement was announced in a joint statement Wednesday night from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York, following a dinner the pair had with Trump at the White House.
“We agreed to enshrine the protections of DACA into law quickly, and to work out a package of border security, excluding the wall, that’s acceptable to both sides," Schumer and Pelosi said in a statement.
Conservative lawmakers and media outlets including Breitbart, run by former Trump adviser Steve Bannon, reacted furiously, labeling Trump "Amnesty Don."
The House's foremost immigration hard-liner, GOP Rep. Steve King of Iowa, addressed Trump over Twitter, writing that if the reports were true, "Trump base is blown up, destroyed, irreparable, and disillusioned beyond repair. No promise is credible."
White House officials insisted Trump would never support an amnesty for the Dreamers. "The Trump administration will not be discussing amnesty," White House spokeswoman Lindsay Walters told reporters aboard Air Force One as the president traveled to Florida.
But the White House message was at times contradictory. A deal "could include legal citizenship over a period of time," said Walters. Most conservatives consider "legal citizenship over a period of time" to meet the definition of amnesty.
Mark Krikorian, director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington think-tank that advocates for less immigration, tweeted that the White House's call for more border security was a "smokescreen."
"'border security' — even 'massive border security' — is an age-old smokescreen for mass legalizations." https://t.co/sKOu1kgL5O— Mark Krikorian (@MarkSKrikorian) September 14, 2017
It was also unclear what "massive border security" spending might entail. The White House speaks of 15,000 extra immigration agents, including 5,000 for the Border Patrol. as well as immigration judges to handle a backlog of cases at six detention centers near the border.
But some commentators said Trump's handling DACA was a positive sign of Trump's recently diminished deal-making ability.
"Trump is a results-driven pragmatist, a businessman always looking at the bottom line," wrote
, founder of the conservative website Newsmax. "Trump is still a Republican and much more popular than any Republican member of Congress," he added citing recent polling. "He has a rock-solid base giving him the latitude to do what he is exceptionally suited to do: make deals."
Trump did appear to confirm one element of the potential deal. "The wall will come later, we're right now renovating large sections of wall, massive sections, making it brand new," he told reporters before his Florida trip.
It was a stunning turnaround for a president whose White House campaign demonized immigrants and focused intensely on construction of a border wall that Trump insisted Mexico would pay for. During the campaign, Trump declared repeatedly that he would "immediately terminate" President Barack Obama's DACA program upon taking office, calling it "illegal."
DACA has strong public support - 70 percent in polls - however, analysts say its remain unclear if any legislation along the lines of this apparent agreement would have enough votes in Congress to become law due to strong resistance form conservative Republicans.
"A lot of people in Washington are going to be walking around in neck braces tomorrow with whiplash because things have changed so dramatically, so quickly," senior political analyst David Axelrod, said on CNN late Wednesday.
After his election, Trump has expressed empathy for the nearly 800,000 young people - many brought to the United States as toddlers or children. "Does anybody really want to throw out good, educated and accomplished young people who have jobs, some serving in the military? Really!" he tweeted Thursday.
Last week, the president that his administration was rescinding the program, but gave Congress six months to come up with a legislative fix.