WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump surprised congressional leaders when he suddenly suggested he was open to broad immigration reform. But while there is appetite on Capitol Hill for legislation, there is also skepticism, and the president's hard-line rhetoric over the past two years could make a compromise bill much harder.
Trump signaled a potential shift on Tuesday in a private meeting with news anchors. The president told them he was open to legislation that would give legal status to some people living in the U.S. illegally and provide a pathway to citizenship to those brought to the U.S. illegally as children.
Those private comments raised expectations that he might make a similar call in his prime-time address. And he did say in his speech that "real and positive immigration reform is possible." But he also pledged to vigorously target people living in the U.S. illegally who "threaten our communities" and prey on "innocent citizens," words similar to his campaign speeches.
His mixed message was a prime topic Wednesday.
"I hope that it opens the door for comprehensive immigration reform, which we obviously feel is vital," said Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who was a member of the so-called Gang of Eight that spearheaded a 2013 immigration bill that ultimately failed after passing the Senate.
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., another Gang of Eight member, said he was encouraged by Trump's remarks — less in the speech than what came out earlier. He said the time was ripe for action, despite Trump's past rhetoric denouncing "illegal amnesty."
"Only Nixon could go to China, I think there are parallels there," said Flake. That was a reference to President Richard Nixon's 1972 meeting with Mao Zedong, now a political metaphor for a leader taking an action that his supporters would typically condemn if taken by someone from another party.
Flakes suggested that Trump could "come out and say, 'All right, we've got to solve this. We're not going to deport 11 million people. There are people out there afraid. ... Why don't we get something we can agree on? Now's the time."
But White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said Wednesday that any legislation would have to be on Trump's terms.
"He recognizes that a solution, a comprehensive solution, has eluded our nation for a long time. And it's a big problem. And if he can get it consistent with his principles he will," Spicer said.
Trump campaigned as an immigration hard-liner, vowing to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and step up deportations. Since taking office, some of his policy moves have hewed closely to those promises, including new guidance from the Department of Homeland Security that would subject any immigrants in the country illegally to deportation if they are charged or convicted of any offense, or even suspected of a crime.
But the president also has suggested he is open to finding a solution for the so-called Dreamers — those who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children. Although he railed against President Barack Obama's executive actions to protect those immigrants from deportation during the campaign, Trump has not rolled back Obama's safeguards and has said he will deal with the Dreamers with "great heart."
Trump did say during the campaign that he was open to "softening" his position. But he ultimately landed where he started, declaring in September that under his presidency there would be "no legal status or becoming a citizen of the United States by illegally entering our country."
"People will know that you can't just smuggle in, hunker down and wait to be legalized," he said then. "Those days are over."
Trump's own mixed thinking has taken center stage. In his lunch with news anchors ahead of his address to Congress, he said, "The time is right for an immigration bill as long as there is compromise on both sides." A person with knowledge of the discussion confirmed his comments to The Associated Press on the condition of anonymity.
In his address, Trump called on Republicans and Democrats to "work together to achieve" progress on immigration legislation.
Not all Republicans are answering that call. Rep. Steve King of Iowa has cautioned Trump against pursuing broad immigration legislation, calling it a "trap."
"Comprehensive is the code word for amnesty, and everyone knows that by now," King said. He also said going in that direction could swiftly alienate core GOP supporters.
"If it's not going to be a promise kept on immigration, the base will be gone."
Indeed, most of Trump's speech comments on immigration struck a tough tone, citing steps his administration has taken in its first month to crack down on people living in the country illegally and painting an image of a country besieged by "lawless chaos."
"As we speak, we are removing gang members, drug dealers and criminals that threaten our communities and prey on our very innocent citizens," he said. "Bad ones are going out as I speak tonight and as I promised throughout the campaign."
The message was underscored by the administration's decision to invite family members of people killed by immigrants living in the U.S. illegally to sit in first lady Melania Trump's box.
AP White House correspondent Julie Pace contributed to this report.