White House stays the course on border talks — despite Trump’s interference

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The White House is not backing away from negotiations over a border deal, even as Donald Trump moves to scuttle those talks.

Officials stuck to a tight script Thursday, telling reporters that the administration continues to engage while urging Republicans to do the same. They notably did not accuse the former president of trying to kill the Senate border deal that Biden aides have been negotiating for months.

“This is a president who knows we need action and is working in good faith to make that happen. And we see no reason for politics to get in the way here,” White House principal deputy press secretary Olivia Dalton told reporters on Air Force One.

The restraint from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue signals the White House is still hopeful that a deal could be struck.

On the Hill, negotiators spent a frantic day trying to salvage talks after it was reported on late Wednesday that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was bowing to Trump’s desires to dissolve a border deal.

The following day, McConnell clarified he still supports pursuing border security linked to Ukraine funding, though he and other top Republicans weren’t able to entirely assuage murmurs that a deal is on its deathbed.

Late Thursday, Trump released a statement saying the nation is “better off not making a deal” unless it’s “perfect,” and he called the current Senate effort “meaningless.”

“A border deal now would be another gift to the radical left Democrats. They need it politically, but don’t care about our border,” he said.

Democrats were quick to accuse Trump of trying to perpetuate a crisis at the border for political gain in the election. Democratic National Committee Chair Jaime Harrison earlier Thursday slammed Trump and Republicans for “sabotaging efforts to address issues at the border.” The Democratic Senate Campaign Committee said Senate Republicans are “tanking” a border deal for political reasons.

But the White House didn’t join the chorus.

Privately, officials said they felt it was too early — and would be imprudent — to jump into the fray. They closely followed the trickle of reports about what exactly McConnell said inside the room. Still hopeful for a deal in the Senate, officials felt that any political response from them would be leveraged by Republicans to scuttle whatever possibility was left to forge an agreement.

“We believe that there needs to be action on the border. That we need to come together on common sense compromise on border measures and border policy and border resources,” Dalton said. “And we still are hopeful that that can happen.”

The monthslong border talks have been a headache for the White House. The administration has tried to find a middle ground between Republicans and Democrats, all while the border faces record pressure and cities across the country struggle to manage an influx of migrants.

The election year timing only complicates the matter, with Trump now looking like a surefire GOP nominee. And for that reason, other Democrats have not been so quiet as the former president grows more public in his desire to see a more conservative final bill or nothing at all.

“This is a party that is a complete mess to the point where the party leadership is explicitly saying in ways that are designed to leak that their presumptive nominee is trying to essentially prevent the Senate and the House from solving problems so that he can have more problems to run on,” said Pat Dennis, president of American Bridge 21st Century, in an interview.

While the White House so far engaged Senate Republicans on border talks, it has not been shy in attacking House GOP leadership, which has stressed its own opposition to a bipartisan deal.

Biden aides know a Senate deal is likely dead on arrival in the House, according to two people familiar with the White House’s thinking, granted anonymity to speak privately about conversations with administration officials. Not only will border legislation face opposition from the GOP caucus, but progressives have also threatened to vote against sweeping changes to asylum law.

And so, administration officials are moving to put blame for inaction on that chamber.

They have been laser focused on getting a deal through the Senate, which they believe will demonstrate Biden’s ability to reach bipartisan agreement and his eagerness to address the border problem. After that, the president’s team plans to rail against House Republicans for dragging their feet.

“They want to get a deal out of the Senate,” one of the people said, “even though they know it’s dead so they can pick a fight with House Republicans.”