‘No One Is in Charge Over There Right Now’: A Top Senate Dem on the GOP’s Border Meltdown

During our conversation, Murphy shared the inside story of the construction of the bill — from Lankford’s scrupulous attention to detail (“If you negotiate with James Lankford, you are negotiating text, not [just] ideas”) to Sinema’s role as mediator (She “is trying to figure out a way to get the two of us on the same page”) to the intense pain he experienced when the whole thing collapsed at the urging of Donald Trump.

Murphy also explained why Biden changed his views on immigration policy and why the president’s position is often misunderstood. And he discussed whether his high-profile role negotiating the border deal was an audition for higher office.

With help from Deep Dive Senior Producer Alex Keeney, this transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Has anything in your career been as disappointing as what happened to the border bill?

I’ve never seen an about-face like this in the 20-plus years I’ve been in politics. On Sunday afternoon, we had 20-25 Republicans we thought we could get to support the bill. Sen. [Mitch] McConnell had been in the room negotiating the bill with us for months, and within 48 hours, we had four yes votes. And Sen. McConnell had voted against the bill that he wrote.

Let’s go back a little bit. I want to unpack the process of putting this together. I haven’t seen you speak much about that. When immigration reform failed in 2013, I remember doing a reconstruction of how the bill came together by interviewing seven of the Gang of Eight.

What was very interesting to me was that they all had different strengths. It was almost like Ocean’s 11 — or Ocean’s 8. What did each of you bring to this? You, Sinema and Lankford?

I’m a progressive, and I’m somebody that cares about preserving immigration and asylum. I also haven’t spent my career working in and around immigration.

It wasn’t the issue that you’re defined by?

So, I brought general progressive values to the table, but I also brought a bit of a fresh perspective. I’m also somebody that thinks my party has been wrong for being so sort of defensive about immigration. I think we need to recognize this is a moment that the American public is demanding that we pass some new, tough laws. And that is not representative of everybody in my party. Sen. Lankford is somebody who has spent a long time studying the border. He’s been down there dozens of times, he knows the statutes inside and out —

He demonstrated that from the beginning?

Yeah. James is somebody who has expressed a lot of interest in this topic for a while and has learned it well. He brought that expertise to the table.

Sinema, obviously her skill is producing compromise. She sits in that room as someone trying to bring James and me together. James represents the conservative right. I represent the progressive left. And Sinema is trying to figure out a way to get the two of us on the same page. She’s got her own independent thoughts about what needs to happen on the border, but she is also somebody that is very squarely focused on getting a result.

She’s the one that’s got an interesting electoral issue this year. Did that ever come up in the negotiations? Were you guys sensitive to that?

Well, she talks about Arizona all the time, so everything that she brings to the table is educated by the experience of immigration in Arizona. But I’m very personally close with Kyrsten, and not more than once during the last four months did I talk to her about her election.

What was your relationship with progressives like? I heard from a lot of activists who were concerned that because you didn’t have a history on immigration that, “Oh, boy, Murphy’s going to sell us out here.”

I can understand why people looked at me with skepticism because I haven’t worked my entire career on the issue of immigration. And I’m also a white guy from Connecticut.

Yes. Race became an issue. People were complaining that there was no prominent Latino or Latina involved in the negotiations. Did that bother you?

I understand where people are coming from, that this is an issue that directly impacts and affects Latinos, both in the United States and those that are coming from Central and South America. And I understand the need that people have to make sure that voice is represented.

All I can tell you is that throughout the process, I was keeping in touch with my Latino constituency in Connecticut. I was talking to [Sen.] Alex Padilla, who’s a close friend of mine, sometimes every single day, sometimes multiple times a day. So I know the perspective that I’m lacking inside that room. And I try to compensate for that by being closely in touch with Latino leaders that I respect.

But I generally understand why some people would wonder why I was in that room. I do think that I’ve gained a recent reputation for being able to work with Republicans and being able to hammer out big, tough compromises. I have a relationship with Lankford, a pre-existing friendship and working relationship, and once he was the appointed Republican, I think it made sense for the two of us with Sinema to be the team to get this done.

One question on the timeline here. I think everyone watching this was actually pretty surprised by how quickly things turned sour. Was there a moment during those negotiations and especially towards the end where you realized, “Oh shit, history is going to repeat itself again. It doesn’t matter how far we go on this issue, how far we move to the right. Republicans want an issue, not a solution.”

I am probably way too hopelessly optimistic and naive for this business, but it’s probably why I’m a good negotiator, because I just refuse to give up. That moment for me was Sunday night around 10 p.m.

You were still hopeful?

When we released the text, I thought that was a tremendous achievement that no one thought was possible. I think a lot of people thought that bill was never going to emerge.

But on Sunday night, it was pretty extraordinary to watch the MAGA movement and the anti-immigration right burn that bill down to the ground in the hopes that it wouldn’t be alive by sunrise.

The fury from the right that night, from Stephen Miller to Republican senators who were against the bill before they ever read it, showed me that this was just a white hot priority for the right, that they were not going to let Democrats and Republicans get a bipartisan deal. And by the time I went to bed — I remember texting that exact sentiment to Sinema on Sunday night — I texted her and said, “They’re going to burn this bill down by the time we get up tomorrow morning, aren’t they?”

And I was sending the text into nowhere because she goes to bed early.

What time does Sinema go to bed?

Well, she gets up at like four in the morning.

Why does she get up at four in the morning?

Because she’s an athlete. She works out.

I know athletes who don’t get up at four!

I don’t know if she gets up at four. She gets up very early. She is not awake at 11:30 p.m. when I am normally doing my political worrying.

Fair enough.

So I knew when I went to bed on Sunday night that there was a rout on and that we weren’t likely to survive it. And then it was the next morning when some of our strongest Republican supporters started to come out against [the bill], it was clear what was happening.

Do you remember the first time Trump threw gasoline on the fire? To sort of kick this all off?

No, because I would have been totally nonplussed at that moment. To the extent that I was reluctant to do this, it was because I knew — as every reasonable person knew — Donald Trump was going to oppose whatever we built. I knew this. I said it repeatedly to James and others.

You weren’t naive.

No, I knew Donald Trump was going to oppose it. Anybody that has any political antenna should know that Donald Trump is going to be against a bipartisan immigration bill. But I kept on being told by Republicans that that didn’t matter, that they would survive, that they would push through it and there would be just enough Republicans to support this that we could get it across the finish line.

So when Trump came out against it, I had already priced that in. And I had assumed, because they told me this, that our Republican colleagues had priced that in. They clearly had not.

Were you disappointed that Lankford essentially bailed on Monday after that GOP Senate meeting?

He did not bail. He stood up on the Senate floor and defended that thing until the end.

But he said on Wednesday that he would support everyone voting against it to give people more time.

No, he was out on every TV show all day Monday, all day Tuesday defending this to the last minute. You may be referring to one frustrated comment he made, but if you were watching TV on Monday and Tuesday — and if you were watching conservative TV on those two days — all you saw was James Lankford, a lone righteous man standing in the wind, defending a bill that by that time he knew was going down.

One of the things that keeps me in this business, despite all of the bullshit, is being surprised by people. I went into this negotiation believing that James Lankford was an honest man and was somebody that could deliver. But even he surprised me by standing up for this thing until the very end, despite all of his colleagues walking.

And so James is wrong about a ton of things. He and I disagree on a ton of really important things, but I thought the leadership and the courage he showed was pretty remarkable.

So your respect for him obviously grew through this process, especially given how he dealt with the whole party coming down on him?

Yeah. It grew. And listen, he’s wrong on choice. He’s wrong on health care. He’s wrong on democracy. I’m going to fight him on all this stuff.

Nobody thinks you’re agreeing with him on everything.

But on this, it grew. I saw that with John Cornyn during the gun debate. I saw that with James Lankford. For all of the shitty, terrible, weaselly behavior that’s being modeled by Republicans today, I think it’s really important when Republicans like James Lankford and John Cornyn and even Mitch McConnell sometimes show the country that a backbone and caring about what’s right is still in vogue in a small slice of the Republican Party.

Do you think he’s sacrificed or at least jeopardized his career by taking the stand he took, especially given the direction of the party recently and Trump?

It just depends on whether you think this fever is ever going to break. If Trump or Donald Trump Jr. is in charge of the Republican Party for the next 50 years, then James probably didn’t make a great call. But I don’t think that’s true. I think there is a very good chance that the Republican Party becomes a little bit more normal once Trump loses this fall. And if that’s the case, James Lankford is going to be a leader in that party for a long time.

People are very interested in the three of you and how you all worked together. And there’s always a lot of intrigue around Sen. Sinema. What did you learn about her that you didn’t know? What did you learn by essentially living with her and James Lankford? This wasn’t staff doing all the work, right? It was the three of you in the room.

Oh, yeah. If you negotiate with James Lankford, you are negotiating text, not [just] ideas

This was like two weeks ago — we spent, just the three of us, 45 minutes on the phone talking about the difference between “presents at the southern border” versus “attempts to present at the southern border.” We did two hours on the difference between the words “unusual,” “exigent,” and “emergency.”

This is senator-to-senator?

This is senator-to-senator. I’ve never been part of a negotiation like this, in which you are negotiating every line of the text with your other principal colleagues.

No, let me take that back. Not every line of the text. We were negotiating many lines of the text directly with our colleagues. This bill ended up being 280 pages. Our staff did an enormous amount of work here as well. The average day started with some texts and phone calls with James and Kyrsten to set what we were going to try to accomplish that day. We spent the middle of the day normally in person, sometimes with staff, sometimes just the three of us, and then we would normally spend that evening on the phone trying to decode what happened that day, trying to smooth over problems that came up. Kyrsten and James spent a lot of time on the phone by themselves. I spent less time on the phone with James myself, but a lot of time with Kyrsten.

I remember over Thanksgiving, for some reason, I drove back to Connecticut on my own, and my wife and kids flew up the next day. I think I needed to get a car up there. I spent the majority of that drive on the phone with James. Not negotiating any specific text, just kind of talking through potential solution sets, what we might be able to do, what we might not be able to do, hearing about his conference. It’s just sort of an example of like every amount of free time that I had over the last four months was devoted to this negotiation in some way, shape or form.

Was the pressure just enormous to get something done? I mean, what was it like going through this?

I thought a lot about the similarities and differences between the gun negotiation and this. The pressure on the gun negotiation was very personal. I’m not saying to me. It felt very personal for the victims and for the moms and dads that I know.

The stakes of this were in some ways much bigger, but they were global. Whether or not we succeeded or failed had something to do with a war on the other side of the world succeeding or failing. So, you certainly had a sense of gravity and I still — this is two days after the collapse — I still have this deep sense of worry and failure. And I wonder about what the consequences are of our agreement not being able to land in the way that we had hoped it would land.

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What was the mandate from the White House on this? It was obviously a big surprise how all-in Biden was, and how far right he was willing to go to get a deal, especially considering where he was on this issue in 2020. What were his instructions?

Well, I don’t think you’re a terribly good leader if you don’t change your position based on emergent circumstances. Nobody had planned on there being 10,000 people showing up at the southern border this winter. And when that happens, you have an obligation to respond. If we just stuck to our position from 2013 or even from 2020, that wouldn’t have been real leadership. And it certainly wouldn’t have been leadership from the White House. So the White House was clear they needed tools to deal with the current emergency that was happening at the border, but they were also clear that they were not going to accept the most draconian Republican proposals — for instance, expedited removal in the interior.

That was a red line?

A transit ban was a red line. Safe Third Country proposals were a red line. The White House also was really clear that if we were going to do things Republicans wanted, there had to be important priorities for Democrats. The White House was instrumental in helping to get the agreement on 250,000 new visas, which I don’t think a lot of people saw coming at the beginning of this negotiation.

And then lastly, the White House was really focused on protecting the one parole program that has worked, and that is the program that allows them to bring in Haitians, Nicaraguans and Cubans into airports after they have been vetted and partnered with an American family. Republicans clearly wanted to get rid of that program. That was one of their top priorities. The compromise at the end did not touch that program, and that was a clear red line for the administration.

What was the most difficult thing for the White House to agree to?

I think you’d have to talk to them about that.

You were in the middle of this though. I assume it was the parole stuff.

Well, that’s a question of priorities, so that’s a question they should probably answer. I think the hardest thing for all of us was accepting that we weren’t going to get Dreamers or a pathway to citizenship.

Forgive me if this is a well-ventilated issue, but did you?

Absolutely. We did and we contemplated whether we could do a bigger deal in which we got Dreamers on the table, but also other elements of [Republicans’] H.R. 2. In the end, that was not going to be a viable path. We were going to have to do something that was more targeted.

Do you think that in the current climate, given what just happened, that the deal you just described would have gotten the same result?

Oh, 100 percent. I now believe that this was inevitable. I now see it totally clearly in a way that I didn’t see when I was sitting in the room. There was nothing we were going to come up with that was going to pass.

So if Biden had just said, “H.R. 2 for the supplemental” straight up, it sounds like you think that would have failed too.

Well, H.R. 2 is a dystopian, anti-American piece of legislation. I guess there is a world in which, had you evicted from the United States every single non-white American, Republicans might have gone for it, but that wasn’t happening.

Just so we understand the personalities involved, who were the key people in the White House who were shepherding this along?

The negotiators in the room: Shuwanza Goff, the head of legislative affairs, and Natalie Quillian, the deputy chief of staff, who inside the White House has the portfolio of border security. But we were on the phone, especially at the end, nearly every day with the full White House leadership team, including Jeff Zients.

What about the president’s involvement?

The president was involved. He talked to Sen. McConnell and Sen. Schumer regularly throughout this process.

Did you get the sense he was absorbed in the details of what was being negotiated, or was he sort of delegating it to his staff?

I think he was regularly being briefed on the details. I know many of the conversations he had with Sen. Schumer and Sen. McConnell were about the details of the negotiations down to the people that were in the room.

The common view about the political incentives — a view Donald Trump eventually adopted — is that for Biden, it’s not just the underlying issue of 10,000 migrants crossing the border every day. It’s also about the campaign and that Biden was highly incentivized to come up with a compromise to aid his reelection. How much did that come up in the discussions with the White House?

Well, the White House wanted to get a deal because it was the right thing.

But also would help his reelection.

The White House was in the room because it was the right thing. I know everybody wants to believe that everybody in this business does stuff for political reasons.

But that is our system. Our system is to incentivize you guys to do things that are popular and that help you get reelected. What’s wrong with that?

But that wasn’t the frame of your question. Your frame was that there was some independent motivation to do it for political reasons because it helps him get reelected. You are right that the framework of our government is genius and that it causes us to do good things, and when we do good things, we should get reelected. But the motivation is to do things that are right for the country.

Do you think that the way that this collapsed — and now I really am talking about the crass politics of it — do you think that it changes the dynamics this year in terms of how that discussion on immigration goes? What do you think this allows Biden to say when he goes to the public and people raise the issue of the border, and how it’s in crisis?

Listen, I didn’t go into this negotiation for political advantage. I went into it because I thought we needed to do something.

Nobody goes into negotiating immigration deals for political advantage.

That’s exactly right. All the people close to me thought that I was idiotic for deciding to do this.

Your other issue is doing deals on guns.

Well, that’s what I thought. I thought, “I got a deal done on guns, first time in 30 years, how hard can immigration be?”

You should really tackle abortion next.

…The answer is “much harder.”

Listen, I believe it is time for the Democratic Party to go on offense on immigration, which is something that we are generally allergic to.

But I think that the only silver lining to what just happened is that it exposes the Republican Party as fraudulent on the issue of the border. They had a bipartisan deal that would have made a huge down payment on fixing the problems of the border, and they ran for the hills because they don’t want to fix the border.

I think Democrats generally are pretty reluctant to lead on issues of border security. But guess what? The people in this country care about this issue. They’re not going to stop caring about this issue between now and the election, and we now have proof that Republicans don’t want to solve it. And we have proof that Democrats do want to solve it, and we should talk about that. We should lead on that between now and the election. And I am pretty confident in talking to the White House that they are going to do just that.

Does that mean that we’ll hear a slightly different message from Democrats and perhaps the president this year versus 2020?

I think it will be infused with this other clear contrast of competence and normalness. I think folks are really worried about giving power to Republicans given what a mess they are, and this was a giant mess. They asked for a bipartisan border deal. They got it. Their Republican leadership negotiated it and then none of them would support it.

So I think that you can talk about the border as an issue the Democrats want to solve and Republicans want to exploit. But I also think you can show what just happened here as more evidence that Republicans probably can’t solve anything if they are in charge because they are constantly fighting each other, even on the issue that they all claim to be united on, which is the border. That is a pretty damning indictment of how broken their party is. I think that’s going to be a very big theme between now and the election.

Did you see how your comments about McConnell being in the room writing this are being weaponized against him by some Republicans?

I mean, I wasn’t giving [any] editorial. It’s just true.

But there’s an open rebellion against him now.

I enjoyed working with Sen. McConnell’s team. I think they were good faith actors. They helped get this bill to the point where we could release it on Sunday night. I just think it’s really worrying that the leader of the Republican Party can’t deliver more than four votes. I mean, no one is in charge over there right now. That is not good for the country. That’s not good for the Senate. That’s no

t good for Democrats. You can’t make policy if no one is in charge.

Isn’t Donald Trump in charge?

You can’t make policy if an adult isn’t in charge, and there are no adults in charge right now.

Do you think McConnell’s leadership is threatened over this?

They need to figure out who’s leading. It’s not up to me who leads them. They just need someone to lead them. We can’t make policy if the Republicans don’t have a leader.

Speaking of leaders, I think by 2028 the Democratic Party is going to be looking for a lot of new leadership. Are you angling for higher office?

I guess I’ve gotten to a place in the Senate now where I can help make it work. I feel super privileged to be trusted by my colleagues to be in the room for big things like guns and immigration. And that doesn’t give me a great desire to leave.

Wow, to say that this week.

I started by telling you I’m a hopeless optimist. I am. We unveiled a massive comprehensive border reform package. We didn’t get it passed, but we got further than anyone in 10 years has gotten. And I still believe in this business, I still believe in democracy, I still believe in the Senate. You know, a lot of the people who end up running for president tend to be people who are super frustrated by this place. I’m not. I still think it can work. And I actually think that I’m one of the people who can help make it work. So that keeps me here.

What do you do for mental health and wellness in a week like this? I’m sure Sinema has some tips.

Well, I’ll tell you what I did: On Monday night, I knew what was happening on Tuesday. I knew Tuesday was going to suck. So I told my 15-year-old that he was skipping school and coming to work with me on Tuesday because I needed a little emotional support. And so on Tuesday, I had my 15-year-old with me all day.

He’s just shadowing you. Just hanging out?

Yeah, I told him, “Put on a suit. You don’t need to wear a tie. You can wear your Converse All Stars, but you’ve just got to be with me today, man. You’re one of my best friends. You’ve got to just be here.”

So, I got through the worst day Tuesday in part because I made my 15-year-old skip school so that he could just kind of be an emotional crutch for me.

What was his takeaway and what happened? Because that’s not like dad’s big day of achievement that he witnessed.

I brought him to work to watch me burn and fall to the ground. Probably years from now, I’ll ask myself whether it was a smart thing to have him with me.

He had to live with the choice I made. I wasn’t around for Christmas or Thanksgiving this year. We took those two days off, but we didn’t do all the things as a family we normally do for the holidays. I still have two school-aged kids, so I wanted him to be here just to support me, but I also wanted him to just be able to see the gravity of what we were doing, see how many other people cared about it, that it wasn’t just my pet project or priority. I think the only way you survive things like this as a family is to not hide the stakes of what you’re doing from the people who are most affected by it, which is your family.

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