ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
NPR's Mara Liasson was at the White House briefing today which was dominated by questions about President Trump's decision on DACA. Hi, Mara.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.
SHAPIRO: What was the main message the White House tried to convey today?
LIASSON: The White House spent a lot of time today trying to beat back the prevailing narrative, which is that this was a cold-hearted move against sympathetic, deserving, young minority kids. And Sarah Sanders tried to make the case over and over again that this was a compassionate decision because the president didn't just cut off DACA. He called for an orderly phaseout. The president himself at the top of a tax reform meeting did talk to the press about this. He said he does have a great heart, and here's what he said.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I have a love for these people, and hopefully now Congress will be able to help them and do it properly. And I can tell you in speaking to members of Congress, they want to be able to do something and do it right.
LIASSON: So the president - confident about Congress. He also issued a statement where he said DACA had caused a massive surge of unaccompanied minors from Central America. That's disputed. But he did say in some cases these minors went on to become members of violent gangs - so two slightly different messages.
SHAPIRO: Of course people who are members of criminal gangs lose their DACA status. But help us understand what a orderly phaseout looks like. What happens in six months once the rollback of the program begins?
LIASSON: Well, assuming Congress doesn't act and assuming the president doesn't change his mind, you could either have a lot of deportations, or you could have none at all if the priorities remain the same and criminals are the ones deported, not law-abiding DACA recipients. But in the meantime, the White House has all but guaranteed by this move that the DREAMers - their situation, their state of mind, their anxieties, their fears - will be in the spotlight, and they will get maximum attention by the media. And you know, Sanders was asked several times today, what happens if Congress doesn't pass anything in six months? She said she was very confident they would. And she said over and over again that Congress must do its job.
SHAPIRO: Is the White House specifically looking for Congress to pass a bill aimed at protecting DACA enrollees?
LIASSON: Well, that is a really good question. The president has clearly punted this to Congress. And Sanders was asked over and over again, would he sign a bill - a standalone DACA bill - if that's what Congress sent him? She didn't say he wouldn't sign it, but she clearly expressed the president's preference that this be embedded in a larger, comprehensive immigration overhaul.
And in the president's own statement today, he spoke very positively of the RAISE Act which was submitted by Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas. That would change the legal immigration system into one that's more merit- and skills-based rather than family-based. But it would also drastically cut the level of legal immigration to the country. But Sanders says the president wants something that addresses border security and vetting and DACA, but she never said he would not sign a standalone bill.
SHAPIRO: There are a lot of different proposals out there in Congress. How realistic is it that something will pass?
LIASSON: Well, this is just the latest in an extremely long list of things Congress has to do this fall. There's Hurricane Harvey relief. We might be adding Irma relief to that. There's the debt ceiling and government funding and the budget. And Trump wants tax reform. And now he's added DACA to that list. And you're right. Given their track record, I wouldn't put money on Congress being able to do this - all these things, many of which are very heavy lifts for Republicans.
So I guess it's pretty unlikely that Congress would do comprehensive overhaul, but it clearly would be the best outcome for the president because it would allow him to keep faith with his base and solve a huge problem that has eluded the last two presidents, who each had eight years and failed to do immigration reform.
SHAPIRO: We heard yesterday from Republican Congressman Carlos Curbelo, who was pretty confident Congress could pass something. Why do you think it's going to be such a challenge?
LIASSON: Because it splits the Republican Party, and it's the textbook definition of a wedge issue. You know, DACA is very popular with independents and Democrats, unpopular with Republicans. That's why the president might not have much leverage with Democrats because Democrats feel they're the ones who are being asked to rescue Republicans in the White House from a dilemma of their own making. And speaking of Democrats, today, as you heard from Carrie, former President Obama released a lengthy statement on Facebook.
LIASSON: This is very unusual.
SHAPIRO: NPR's Mara Liasson, thanks a lot.
LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.