WASHINGTON — As much of the country was gripped Wednesday by horrific images from the mass shooting at a Florida high school, two dozen senior Trump administration officials worked frantically into the night to thwart what they considered a different national security threat.

The looming danger on the minds of the officials was a piece of legislation scheduled for a vote the next day in the Senate. It was designed to spare hundreds of thousands of young immigrants known as “dreamers” from deportation – but to the men and women huddled in a makeshift war room in a Department of Homeland Security facility, the measure would blow open U.S. borders to lawless intruders.

“We’re going to bury it,” one senior administration official told a reporter about 10:30 that evening.

The assault was relentless – a flurry of attacks on the bill from DHS officials and the Justice Department, and a veto threat from the White House – and hours later, the measure died on the Senate floor.

The Trump administration’s extraordinary 11th-hour strategy to sabotage the bill showed how, after weeks of intense bipartisan negotiations on Capitol Hill, it was the White House that emerged as a key obstacle preventing a deal to help the dreamers.


The episode reflected President Donald Trump’s inability – or lack of desire – to cut a deal with his adversaries even when doing so could have yielded a signature domestic policy achievement and delivered the U.S.-Mexico border wall he repeatedly promised during the campaign.

Along the way, Trump demonstrated the sort of unpredictable behavior that has come to define his topsy-turvy tenure, frequently sending mixed signals that kept leaders in both parties guessing.

Trump told lawmakers last month he would sign any immigration bill that made it to his desk. At one point in the fall, to the chagrin of some in the GOP, Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., thought they had a deal, giving Trump billions of dollars for the wall in exchange for a “dreamer” fix. Immigration advocates recalled that Trump, last year, had told the dreamers they could “rest easy.”

In the end, Trump remained loyal to restrictionist advisers and allies, who have pressed the president to be true to his hard-line rhetoric on the issue. And Democrats and some GOP centrists are asking whether Trump ever really wanted to reach a deal in the fall when he terminated the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

“People will begin to question the president’s credibility over his statements that he feels empathy for these young people,” said Enrique Gonzalez, a Miami-based immigration attorney who previously served as a policy adviser to Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.

Up against legislation that was gaining steam in the Senate, the administration executed its attack with military precision.


Shortly before 1 a.m. Thursday, DHS blasted out a blistering three-page statement warning that the bipartisan bill would create “a Sanctuary Nation where ignoring the rule of law is encouraged.” Hours later, Attorney General Jeff Sessions declared the bill would “invite a mad rush of illegality across our borders.” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders issued a veto threat.

The plan did not stand a chance.

The bill’s demise, along with the failure of three alternative immigration measures, has left the Senate talks in tatters and convinced many on Capitol Hill that nothing will be done in an election year.

A Democratic Senate aide involved in the negotiations said Trump “allowed himself to be pulled 20 times” by his senior advisers after he had tiptoed toward a deal with Democrats. A number of Senate Republicans were on the fence, and “as soon as the president came out against it, we knew they would not go for it,” said the aide, who was not authorized to speak on the record. “To his credit, he leveraged his DACA position to get Democrats to vote for his wall – and yet he still turned it down. He’s not going to get another shot this clean to get a wall. He tossed that away for good.”

Some on Capitol Hill pointed to Trump’s rejection of a different bipartisan proposal last month from Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Richard Durbin, D-Ill., and to the president’s use of a vulgar term to describe African countries, Haiti and El Salvador during a bipartisan immigration meeting – an outburst that made it politically impossible for Democrats to accede to Trump’s demands to terminate a diversity visa lottery program.

In the end, a president who promised to build a border wall paid for by Mexico balked over an immigration deal that would have given him a $25 billion down payment from U.S. taxpayers. A president who last year advised dreamers to “rest easy” and told lawmakers last month at the White House that he wanted a “bill of love” torpedoed an effort backed by 16 senators on Valentine’s Day.