This is the smart political play on both sides of the equation. If Kelly hints that Trump might break his pledge and extend the deadline to end the program on March 5, populists will freak out and the pressure on Congress to make a deal on a DACA fix will evaporate.

But if he cranks up the pressure by claiming that DACA enrollees will land squarely on the chopping block for ICE once their eligibility expires, a lot of Americans will be unhappy. There are few political questions that draw very heavy majorities in polling nowadays but legalizing DREAMers is one.

Just one question. Declaring that DREAMers aren’t a priority for deportation feels a little bit like … executive amnesty, doesn’t it? By no means is it the same as DACA, which took the extraordinary step of making enrollees eligible for work permits by Obama’s kingly decree. But if the White House chief of staff is publicly nudging DHS not to remove young illegals whose eligibility has lapsed, he’s more or less greenlighting the idea of letting them stay put inside the U.S. as official policy. They’ll be back in the, ahem, “shadows,” with their right to remain under a cloud, but they won’t be removed for the time being. Is that meaningfully different from amnesty?

“I doubt very much” Trump would extend the program, Kelly told reporters during an impromptu interview at the U.S. Capitol…

At the Capitol, Kelly reiterated the administration’s position that dreamers “are not a priority for deportation” presuming they avoid breaking the law.

Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen has said previously that her department would not target dreamers for deportation. But Nielsen said in an interview last month with CBS News that DHS will “enforce the law.”

All Dems need is one DHS raid on DREAMers to get caught on camera and they’ve got their fundraising message to their base all set for the next nine months. Another fun soundbite from Kelly this morning:

“There are 690,000 official DACA registrants and the president sent over what amounts to be two and a half times that number, to 1.8 million,” he said. 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.”

There may be some who were too lazy to sign up for DACA but amnesty fans have complained for the past two years that enrollment is a sucker’s game with border hawk Donald Trump in control (or potentially in control) of DHS. When you enroll in DACA you identify yourself to the feds and give them all of your pertinent information, including your address. Your reward for “coming out of the shadows” is legal status. Their fear was that, once custody of that information transferred from Obama to Trump, Trump would be setting on a goldmine of data he could use to find and deport DACA enrollees as their eligibility lapsed. Which seems … not so irrational a fear, now that we’re less than a month away from the program expiring.

I don’t know what Trump’s going to do. Any outcome here apart from a congressional deal is a headache for him, which probably explains why he’s doing what he can to twist arms for a congressional deal:

Irony of ironies, it may be his very good friends on the federal bench who end up bailing him out via another dubious ruling on one of his proposals. A federal district court in California held a few weeks ago that Trump *couldn’t* stop accepting new DACA enrollments; apparently, since King Barack had his say, Trump is now bound by law to follow his lead for the time being. The DOJ is appealing that ruling to the Ninth Circuit and to the U.S. Supreme Court, knowing how the left coast’s favorite court is likely to rule. But as the case drags out, the district court’s order is in effect. Trump is stuck issuing new DACA permits unless and until a higher court says otherwise. If you’re a populist and you don’t like the fact that the program remains intact, take it up with the federal bench, not with the president. For now.

Oh, and don’t forget: Mitch McConnell kinda sorta promised amnesty fans in the Senate that he’d hold a vote on immigration before the next shutdown deadline, which is just three days away. John McCain and Chris Coons floated a bill a few days ago but the White House has declared it dead on arrival. For Democrats, though, just the fact that a vote on something or other may be held may be enough of a political victory to make a second shutdown over DACA unnecessary this time:

The Democratic thinking seems to be this: They have a pledge from McConnell to initiate an immigration debate in the coming days, one they believe will lead to the Senate passing some kind of bipartisan legislation. An overwhelming Senate vote, they think, will change the underlying dynamic of the DACA standoff, forcing the House and Trump to the table to find a real resolution to the issue — and if they don’t, the blame will be squarely on them…

“I think it’s not impossible for us to get to not only 60 votes, but beyond 60 votes,” King told me. “If that happens, that puts tremendous pressure on the president and on the House to act on this.”

“Plus, do they really want to start deporting third-grade teachers on March 5?” he added. “I don’t think so.”

Supposedly, if the Senate passes a bad bill with bipartisan support (they’ve done it before!), Trump will cave and rubber-stamp it in the name of getting DACA off the table even though, uh, a big chunk of the 40 percent of the country that still approves of him will freak out if he does. Stay tuned!