WASHINGTON -- 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 and declared that Republican leaders were "very much on board."
But Trump, speaking to reporters before surveying hurricane damage in Florida, pushed back against Democratic leaders who claimed there was a deal on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) initiative. He also said his promised wall along the U.S.-Mexico border would "come later," but would need to happen soon.
"We're working on a plan subject to getting massive border controls. We're working on a plan for DACA. People want to see that happen," Trump said. He added: "'I think we're fairly close but we have to get massive border security."
After he landed in Florida, he declared repeatedly, "If we don't have a wall, we're doing nothing."
Trump, in a series of early morning tweets, disputed the characterization of a private White House dinner on Wednesday night by his guests, Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York and Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, the top Democrats on Capitol Hill. Trump said there was no deal, despite a statement from Pelosi and Schumer announcing a broad agreement.
On the Senate floor Thursday morning, Schumer insisted that both sides were in agreement and there was no dispute.
"If you listen to the president's comments this morning ... it is clear that what Leader Pelosi and I put out last night was exactly accurate," said Schumer. "We have reached an understanding on this issue. We have to work out details, and we can work together on a border security package with the White House and get DACA on the floor quickly."
Indeed, in the face of ferocious pushback from conservative lawmakers and media outlets including Breitbart, run by former Trump adviser Steve Bannon, the White House appeared focused more on shaping presentation of the agreement, than on denying it outright.
"By no means was any deal ever reached," White House spokeswoman Lindsay Walters told reporters aboard Air Force One as the president traveled to Florida. "This is something that Congress needs to work on."
But Breitbart was already labeling Trump "Amnesty Don."
"The Trump administration will not be discussing amnesty," Walters said. The president wants "a responsible path forward in immigration reform. That could include legal citizenship over a period of time. But absolutely by no means will this White House discuss amnesty," she said, although most conservatives would consider "legal citizenship over a period of time" to meet the definition of amnesty.
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."
Schumer and Pelosi said in a statement that the details on border security needed to be negotiated, that both sides agreed "the wall would not be any part of this agreement" and that Trump said he would pursue the wall later.
And soon after, Trump appeared to confirm that approach. "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.
He also said Republican congressional leaders, House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky favored his approach on the immigration program. "Ryan and McConnell agree with us on DACA," Trump said, adding that he had spoken to them by telephone.
Ryan, meanwhile, was adamant after speaking with Trump and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly that no agreement had been reached.
"The president wasn't negotiating a deal last night. The president was talking with Democratic leaders to get their perspectives," he told reporters on Capitol Hill.
Republicans in Congress, meanwhile, tried to make sense of the confusion.
"Slow down the trains, there's no agreement," said Rep. Dave Brat, R-Va., who warned" ''You can make a deal all you want, it's got to get past the House and the Senate."
It was a head-snapping series of events 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."
However, since then the president has expressed empathy for the nearly 800,000 young people - many brought to the United States as toddlers or children - who were protected from deportation and given work permits under the program.
"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.
Trump announced last week that his administration was rescinding the program, but gave Congress six months to come up with a legislative fix.
The back-and-forth comes as the president has suddenly turned to Democrats to jump-start his legislative imperatives. Only days ago, Trump and the Democratic leaders agreed to back a three-month extension of the debt limit in order to speed hurricane assistance.
A person briefed on the Wednesday night meeting, who spoke on condition anonymity about the private get-together, said the deal had centered on bipartisan legislation that would provide eventual citizenship for the young immigrants.
But Trump said Thursday that citizenship was off the table: "We're not looking at citizenship. We're not looking at amnesty. We're looking at allowing people to stay here," he said.
Early response from conservatives indicated their loyalty to Trump did not go so far as to allow them to embrace his immigration pact with the Democrats.
Trump says GOP leaders 'on board' in immigration talks