Republicans seethe as Trump flirts with Democrats on immigration

Michael Mathes, Andrew BEATTY
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US President Donald Trump answers reporters' questions on DACA upon his arrival in Fort Myers, Florida

President Donald Trump on Thursday infuriated some of his staunchest supporters by appearing to back away from vows to curb illegal immigration and embracing a deal with opposition Democrats.

Longtime allies dubbed Trump "Amnesty Don" and warned he risked fracturing his political base, after the enigmatic president opened the door for hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants to stay in the United States.

Trump said he was "fairly close" to reaching a deal with Democrats to allow immigrants brought to the United States as children to stay, even without a direct commitment to fund his much-vaunted border wall.

"You have 800,000 young people, brought here, no fault of their own. So we're working on a plan," Trump said, hours after hosting a working dinner with top congressional Democrats on the so-called "Dreamers," who were protected from deportation under an Obama-era scheme called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) .

Anti-immigration Republican Congressman Steve King responded furiously, saying such a deal would mean the "Trump base is blown up, destroyed, irreparable, and disillusioned beyond repair. No promise is credible."

Breitbart News, a far-right website run by former chief White House strategist Steve Bannon, disparaged him as "Amnesty Don" and screamed betrayal.

A handful of indignant Republican activists even called for Trump's impeachment.

- Damage limitation -

Tackling illegal immigration was a core tenet of Trump's political platform and perhaps the only issue that united his conservative, evangelical and nationalist supporters.

But nine months into his presidency and in dire need of political wins, Trump has moved to embrace Democrats, hosing Senate leader Chuck Schumer and House of Representatives top Democrat Nancy Pelosi at the White House Wednesday.

"We agreed that the President would support enshrining DACA protections into law" the pair said in a joint statement, adding that no funding for Trump's long-promised wall on the US-Mexico border would be in the deal.

The working dinner was the second time in a week that Trump huddled with Democrats.

Last week, in a move that vexed Republican conservatives, he struck a deal with Democrats on bundling hurricane relief with raising the debt ceiling and extending government funding.

The White House leapt into damage limitation mode early Thursday, assuring furious Republicans that no deal had been reached and insisting Democrats must agree to fund border security measures.

Trump later changed his message stressing "the wall is going to be built and it will be funded later."

While claiming "my relationship with the Republicans is excellent" and insisting "many of them agree with what I'm doing," Trump also issued a warning.

"We have to get things passed, and if we can't get things passed then we have to go a different route."

"If they (Republicans) are unable to stick together then I'm going to have to get a little help from the Democrats."

- The wall -

Trump delighted his own camp last week by rescinding the DACA protections decreed by his predecessor Barack Obama -- but then urged Congress to craft a legal solution within the next six months.

As the DACA discussion swirled, it appeared Trump and his White House were not on the same page.

"We are not looking at citizenship. We are not looking at amnesty" of DACA immigrants, Trump said in Florida, where he was surveying the aftermath of Hurricane Irma.

But a White House spokeswoman, Lindsay Walters, said the administration was considering a path to immigration reform "that could include legal citizenship over a period of time."

White House advisor Helen Aguirre Ferre said any deal "would have to include massive border security, internal enforcement and surveillance."

The White House is pressing for 15,000 new immigration officials and the package could include the use of drones, air support and new technology including sensors.

- Furious -

Trump's apparent willingness to work with Democrats "Chuck and Nancy" rather than his own party's leaders who control Congress, and his repeated attacks on Republicans, has fueled suggestions he is striking out on his own, all too willing to leave his party in the dust.

Even prior to the DACA dealmaking, Trump signaled an independent streak not seen in a US president in generations.

He has hammered Republicans for failing to repeal the Affordable Care Act, sacked his chief of staff Reince Priebus -- a powerful former party boss -- and warned Republican lawmakers he will oppose their re-election if they defy his populist agenda.

"Frankly, this is still a reality show president" who thrives on good reviews, John Hudak, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told AFP.

"He found that when he's worked with Democrats, he has gotten better reviews, better ratings," he added. "He seems inclined to continue doing that."

House Speaker Paul Ryan has expressed support for legalizing the Dreamers, but insisted Thursday that negotiations had yet to begin.

"These were discussions, not negotiations," he said of Trump's talks with Pelosi and Schumer. "There isn't an agreement."