MONTPELIER — Gov. Phil Scott said he believes Republican President Donald Trump is looking to walk back his rhetoric on immigration after attending meetings with the president on Sunday and Monday.
Scott was in Washington, D.C., over the weekend and into Monday for a National Governors Association meeting. Scott attended the annual Governor’s Ball at the White House on Sunday evening, as well as a meeting at the White House with the president Monday morning. The White House events were a first for Scott, who told reporters last week that he had never before visited the famed building, even as a tourist.
Scott has emerged as one of the president’s most vocal critics when it comes to immigration policy among the Republican governors. He is a force behind legislation that has cleared the Vermont Senate that seeks to prevent local, county and state law enforcement from helping the federal government enforce immigration law. Scott said the issue was raised by the president in his meetings with the governors.
Scott said he and other governors were provided with a secure briefing by Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly and other military officials on Trump’s stringent immigration policy. Both Kelly and the president seemed to be trying to “ramp down the rhetoric,” according to Scott.
“It sounded to me like the president was trying to clarify his position, somewhat walking back a bit, saying he wants to crack down on immigrants who are violent or breaking the law,” Scott said in a telephone interview Monday as he prepared to return to Vermont. “He didn’t say that, but that’s the impression I got, and certainly the impression I got from Gen. Kelly,”
The governor said he expected Monday’s meeting with the president to last about two hours, but the event was only an hour, with half the time taken up by the press.
“It wasn’t quite as much of the back and forth as I thought. We all had a lot of questions to ask. It doesn’t leave a whole lot of time for all the questions to be answered or even asked,” he said. “It was good to get (the president’s) perspective on a number of things.”
The president was not very forthcoming on how he plans to address health care reform, however. Scott said Trump largely demurred, telling governors to catch his first address to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday.
“He said that what he has to say tomorrow night is good — really, really good, and you’re going to really like it. That’s about it. He sidestepped the issue a number of times,” Scott said.
Scott said his meetings with other governors were more fruitful.
“I think what I came away with was that the governors are all in different positions. Some have expanded Medicaid. Some like what they are hearing, what the president is saying, and others don’t,” the governor said. “We have some support. There were a number of other states that are in a position that we are, that want to see some tweaks and want to see some changes, but are uncertain about a full repeal (of the federal Affordable Care Act.)”
The Trump administration revealed its federal budget outline Monday, which calls for increasing military spending by more than $50 billion. Corresponding budget cuts will be sought in discretionary domestic spending. Scott said that could have significant negative impacts on Vermont and other states.
“Obviously, when almost half of our budget is based on federal funding, I’m always concerned when I hear that he wants to investment in some of those areas that are very expensive. But, that’s his prerogative,” Scott said. “I think we’ll learn a lot more tomorrow night.”
Trump’s message to governors Monday was that federal spending would increase in a few key areas — Public safety, national security and “beefing up the military,” Scott said. The president also reiterated a common campaign theme — that the U.S. must start winning again.
“He wants to win again,” Scott said. “Whether he was talking about trade, our military, drugs, it was about winning. He mentioned that numerous times.”
Governors on both sides of the aisle were pleased to hear the president speak about returning power to the states.
“I thought that was probably the influence from Vice President (Mike) Pence, a former governor. Regardless of your party affiliation, I think most governors, and there was 46 of them there, I think they came away feeling good and that they have access, access that they haven’t had for a long time,” Scott said. “I wouldn’t say relieved is the right term, but at least feeling a little bit better about at least having their voice heard.”
Scott said he was moved by his first visit to the White House.
“Pretty special, pretty incredible, when you consider the historic nature of the building and who’s walked the halls,” he said.