Trump knows where he stands on DACA, but the White House won't let him say it

Trump's words on immigration don't matter, as long as he's tending to his base

In a spur-of-the-moment Q&A with White House reporters Wednesday, President Trump appeared to veer wildly off-script, saying he supports a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers, undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children.

“Over a period of 10 to 12 years, somebody does a great job, they work hard — that gives incentive to do a great job,” Trump said. “Whatever they’re doing, if they do a great job, I think it’s a nice thing to have the incentive of, after a period of years, being able to become a citizen.”

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But that policy position only lasted a few minutes. A White House official who spoke on the condition of anonymity with AP immediately clarified the president’s comments, calling citizenship for Dreamers just a “discussion point.”

Lawmakers have been negotiating a solution for Dreamers since Trump announced last fall that the Obama-era DACA program for them would expire on March 5. Protections for Dreamers, including a pathway to citizenship, is a top priority for Democrats, who agreed to end the government shutdown on Monday without a guarantee Republicans would support that kind of compromise.

Read more: A radical anti-immigration group infiltrated the GOP. Now it’s in the White House.

But while the president has been criticized for constantly changing his position on immigration, including torpedoing a bipartisan agreement last week that led to the shutdown, he’s been remarkably consistent on DACA.

During the campaign and into his first year as president, Trump reassured Dreamers that “they shouldn’t be very worried” and that his adminstration was "going to show great heart.” Earlier this month in a televised roundtable with lawmakers, Trump said he supported a “clean DACA bill” to provide protections for Dreamers.

Trump was clearly listening to the immigration hard-liners in the White House and Congress when he pulled support from the immigration bill on Jan. 11 during the infamous “shithole countries” meeting, after White House staff gave him a memo outlining problems with the bill. The episode shows it’s unclear whether Trump’s own beliefs matter much on the immigration debate.

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“He’s said in the past he wants certain things, or is willing to concede certain things, but at the end of the day it’s not up to him,” said David Bier, a policy analyst at the conservative Cato Institute. “He’s deferring to his advisers and his staff, and that’s who members of Congress are talking to about what the President wants.”

Read more: How the GOP’s hard-line immigration plan could force another shutdown

The walk-back wasn’t enough for Trump’s anti-immigrant Breitbart base. The far-right website’s headline Wednesday read, “Trump Says He’s Open to U.S. Citizenship for DACA Illegal Aliens,” and slammed Trump for breaking his campaign promise to end “amnesty” for illegal immigrants.

Meanwhile, the White House has endorsed a House bill that severely limits the number of Dreamers eligible for protections and precludes most Dreamers from pursuing citizenship by other means.

Late Wednesday the White House said it will release a legislative framework on immigration on Monday, which will be the third such framework from the White House on this issue since October. So far the frameworks, paired with the president’s comments, have failed to clarify for lawmakers where exactly Trump — and his staff — stand on immigration.