WASHINGTON – President Trump said Tuesday he would shut down the government if Congress doesn't fix an immigration system that doesn't allow the government to deport criminal gang members.
"If we don’t change it, let’s have a shutdown. It’s worth it for our country. I'd love to see a shutdown if we don’t get this taken care of," Trump said Tuesday as he met with law enforcement officials at the White House to discuss the threat of the MS-13 gang.
If Democrats don't want to close loopholes that allow gang members to illegally enter and remain in the country, he said, "Then shut it down."
Trump's comments came just four days before Congress faces another deadline to pass a spending bill or shut down the government. The last spending impasse was resolved only after Democrats extracted a promise that Trump and Republicans would negotiate a solution to immigrants who arrived in the United States as children.
Trump's shutdown threat received immediate resistance even from fellow Republicans. Rep. Barbara Comstock, R-Va., whose suburban Washington district includes a high percentage of federal government workers and contractors, said both parties want to crack down on criminal gangs.
"We don’t need a government shutdown on this," she told Trump. "I think both sides learned that a shutdown is bad."
"We are not getting support of the Democrats," Trump shot back. "You can say what you want."
That exchange punctuated an event intended to highlight the relationship between criminal gangs and immigration laws.
"We’ve never really seen anything quite like this, the level of ferocity, the level of violence," Trump said. "MS-13 recruits through our broken immigration system, violating our borders. Whenever they want to come through, they come through."
By framing immigration as a national security issue, Trump is hoping to pressure Congress to approve restrictions on immigration in exchange for a path to citizenship for childhood arrivals.
Asked by a reporter if he stood by the shutdown threat, Trump didn't back down.
"I would shut it down over this issue. I can't speak for everybody at the table, but I will tell you, I would shut it down over this issue," he said. "If we don't straighten out our border, we don't have a country. Without borders we don't have a country. So would I would shut it down over this issue? Yes."
The previous shutdown lasted three days before Congress passed a three-week spending extension to give both sides time to negotiate a longer-term deal on immigration and spending.
Trump claimed victory in that battle, portraying Senate Democrats as the instigators of the shutdown. But his remarks on Tuesday could flip that script, making the president responsible for any future budget impasse.
"The only people who have caused a shutdown are the Democrats who have repeatedly held the government hostage over their own demands," White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said. "It’s a fight we won last time, and it’s one we feel very confident we will win again."
But she suggested that Trump wasn't threatening to veto a spending bill if he didn't have an immigration deal by Friday.
"They're not mutually exclusive. The president wants to get a deal on both of those," she said. "We don't want to hold the government hostage over this issue."
Few on Hill support shutdown
On Capitol Hill, Sen. Chuck Schumer said Trump's threat “speaks for itself."
"We had one Trump shutdown," he said. "Nobody wants another, maybe except him.”
One participant in the MS-13 meeting, Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., also distanced himself from the shutdown talk.
"I don't see the need for a shutdown now," he said. "I don't see that at all in the offing."
Trump is insisting that any immigration bill passed by Congress have four components: A permanent legal status for so-called DREAMers who entered the country illegally as children; $25 billion in border security, including a Mexican border wall; restrictions on family-based "chain migration"; and an end to the diversity visa lottery system that gives preferences to under-represented countries.
But it's unclear whether that framework will make it into legislation by the self-imposed spending deadline on Friday.
Another deadline comes four weeks later. On March 5, DACA recipients who have not applied for a temporary extension to their status could face deportation.
White House Chief of Staff John Kelly told reporters on Capitol Hill Tuesday that he doubts Trump would extend that deadline. And he noted that only 690,000 of the 1.8 million eligible DREAMers have applied for that status.
"The difference between (690,000) and 1.8 million were the people that some would say were too afraid to sign up, others would say were too lazy to get off their asses, but they didn't sign up," Kelly said.