The White House chief of staff and the national security adviser got into a profanity-laced argument about immigration outside the Oval Office early Thursday morning, two people briefed on the altercation said, prompting the chief of staff to leave the White House complex and not return for the rest of the day.
The blowup between John Kelly, President Donald Trump’s chief of staff, and John R. Bolton, his national security adviser, was loud enough to be overheard by several officials in the West Wing. It erupted as the president — disappointed by new government data showing that his restrictive immigration policies have failed to discourage migrants from seeking entry into the United States — is grasping to resolve a problem that has bedeviled his administration.
A third person described the episode as little more than a typical airing of differences between Bolton and Kelly, who has a temper. All three spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe an internal conversation.
The three people said Kelly and Bolton were sparring over an issue that has frequently angered the president and has often prompted him to lash out at Kirstjen Nielsen, who succeeded Kelly as the secretary of homeland security after serving as his deputy chief of staff in the White House. Bolton was siding with the president, who has angrily blamed Nielsen for failing to staunch the flow of migrants across the border, while Kelly, who is protective of his protégé, defended her, the people said.
The two men also differed over how aggressively to push Central American countries to do more to discourage their citizens from seeking refuge in the United States.
The shouting match exploded not long after Trump tweeted on Thursday morning that Democrats were leading an “assault on our country” by El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, a reference to a caravan of Central American migrants who are making their way north through Mexico with the goal of entering the United States. The president threatened to use the military to seal off the border, and hinted vaguely that he might sacrifice a new trade deal with Mexico and Canada to retaliate against Mexico for failing to “stop this onslaught.”
Earlier this week, Trump threatened to yank foreign aid from Central American countries that allow their people to make the journey north.
Weeks before the midterm congressional elections, Trump is trying to elevate the issue of illegal immigration, an animating topic for the base of conservative white voters who powered his campaign, and one that many Republicans are leaning on in an attempt to hold on to their seats.
The White House declined to comment directly on the quarrel between Kelly and Bolton, but after hours of questions about it, issued a statement Thursday evening suggesting there was no bad blood in the West Wing.
“While we are passionate about solving the issue of illegal immigration, we are not angry at one another,” Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, said in a statement that played down the infighting in the West Wing and instead said Trump’s team was “furious” at Democrats over the issue.
Trump said last month that the United States would be reviewing its foreign aid with an eye toward providing it only “to those who respect us and, frankly, are our friends,” and Bolton has advocated revoking it from countries who take steps at odds with U.S. objectives. Kelly, a retired Marine general and former commander of U.S. Southern Command, which oversees military operations in Central and South America, has made the case that American aid is vital to helping the region cope with its drug and economic problems, thus preventing an even larger flood of migration to the United States.
The president’s renewed complaints about immigration appear to be driven in part by new data. Numbers compiled by the Department of Homeland Security show that Trump’s policies, including his administration’s decision to separate children from their parents at the border, have failed to deter people from trying to gain entry to the United States.
The data, which has yet to be released publicly by the administration but was obtained by The New York Times, shows that 16,658 people traveling in families were apprehended at the border last month, the highest single-month total, and a total of 107,212 have been apprehended over the last year, the highest ever for families. That is substantially higher than the previous year-end total of 77,857 in the 2016 fiscal year.
Still, Sanders insisted the White House was pleased with its own immigration efforts. “Despite us having the worst laws in the world and no help from Democrats, our administration is doing a great job on the border,” she said.