White House, Lindsey Graham go to war over immigration

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., joined by, from left, Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., talks Thursday about the immigration deal the senators crafted.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., joined by, from left, Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., talks Thursday about the immigration deal the senators crafted. AP

“Who the hell wrote this?”

That’s how Sen. Lindsey Graham described his furious reaction to a Department of Homeland Security statement condemning a Senate immigration plan carefully crafted by Republicans and Democrats.

Graham has been working for months on writing a proposal that could win Senate approval. He’d spoken to President Donald Trump just days earlier, warning him, “I want to work with (you), but I'm not going to tolerate ... some of the things coming out of this White House.”

Once a Trump favorite, Graham found Thursday he was seen as an “obstacle” by at least some senior members of the administration.

The unprecedented crosstown rhetorical battle began in the morning, when DHS blasted out a press release saying a Senate Democrat-Republican agreement to protect 1.8 million undocumented immigrants from deportation “would effectively make the United States a Sanctuary Nation where ignoring the rule of law is encouraged.”

Graham fired back with his own statement saying he was “disappointed” with DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen for sanctioning the release.

At a news conference a few hours later, Graham later revealed the department screed was penned by a one-time press secretary to Tom Tancredo, who as a Colorado GOP congressman sought to derail comprehensive immigration overhaul legislation in the mid-2000s.

“You've got the two most extreme characters in town running the show,” Graham said of the former Tancredo aide and Stephen Miller, a senior White House adviser who has spent years as a congressional staffer fighting expansions of legal immigration.

By the early afternoon, a senior White House official was telling reporters on a phone briefing that Graham was a deterrent to landing a deal to codify the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which Trump will end on March 5 unless Congress extends it.

“If you look at the history of failed immigration reform bills, at some point you have to ask yourself the question whether Lindsey Graham’s involvement in drafting those bills means that instead of being the solution to the problem Lindsey Graham’s presence on those bills is the problem,” said the official, who later sniped, “I'm not aware when Lindsey Graham became the chair of the Democratic conference.”

The official would not put a name to the remarks.

“I don’t know who it is. All I can say is, they’re brave enough to be anonymous,” Graham said in response to the call. “So here’s what I can say: Stephen Miller is an outlier on immigration, he’s an extremist and the president who has turned the keys of the car over to him will never get anywhere.”

Graham isn’t a stranger to being criticized for supporting a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants brought to the country illegally by their parents as young children. He’s been working on immigration legislation in Congress for years, during which time he’s often had to endure the nickname “Lindsey Grahmnesty.”

After Trump won the 2016 election in part by campaigning to deport millions of undocumented immigrants, conservative hardliners are questioning whether Graham is the right person to lead immigration talks on Capitol Hill, asking whether someone who is more in line with the president’s base should be running point — someone like Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark.

Cotton has spent the past month demeaning Graham’s participation in immigration negotiations.

“I think it’s embarrassing for a senator to punch down and attack a staffer,” Cotton told reporters. “It impugns the president for any senator to say a president is being led around by his staff.”

But the criticism lodged against Graham on Thursday from White House officials went beyond typical verbal sparring. And immediately after the exchanges, few fellow Republicans were eager to enter the fray to defend him.

White House legislative director Marc Short, at the Capitol for meetings with lawmakers, told reporters he “obviously” didn’t know who the unnamed official was. Short refused to comment on the remarks.

“I still feel like I’ve had a good relationship with Sen. Graham and appreciate the chance to work with him on lots of things. I don’t happen to agree with him on this particular issue but I’ve found he’s been a good help for me on a lot of issues,” Short said.

Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., who famously called the White House under Trump’s leadership “adult day care” and now may be reconsidering his plans to retire, wouldn’t comment on reports of the White House’s criticism of Graham.

“I don’t want to get into a debate,” Corker said. “I think (Graham) and many people here are constantly seeking ways to find solutions.”

Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., underplayed the controversy.

“That’s kind of the hyperbole that goes along when things get tight,” he said.

Senators on both sides of the aisle agreed Graham had been an instrumental in trying to find an immigration compromise. As he headed to the Senate floor to take a procedural vote on the Republican-Democrat proposal that was ultimately doomed — it failed to advance, falling six votes short of the 60 needed — he said he wasn’t looking to sugarcoat the situation, or his position.

“I have no interest in lying to the American people about what’s going on at the White House,” he said. “I’m a proud Republican who believes in more immigration, not less.”

Anita Kumar of the McClatchy Washington bureau contributed to this report.

Emma Dumain: 202-383-6126, @Emma_Dumain