In the 2018 midterm election, President Trump bet the House on immigration and lost; for 2020, he has bet the White House.
That’s the clear lesson of this week’s events at the Department of Homeland Security: the departure of Kirstjen Nielsen as secretary; the purge of high-level officials associated with her and her predecessor, John Kelly; and the public search for harsher policies that might deter Central Americans fleeing violence at home from seeking asylum in the U.S.
Trump tried to make the 2018 election a referendum on immigration. But voters set aside his ominous warnings of caravans of illegal “invaders” and turned in large numbers to Democratic congressional candidates. Nonetheless, there’s a logic to Trump’s approach that Democrats should not discount.
A BASE BUILT ON IMMIGRATION FEARS
Trump swerves erratically on many issues, but from his first day as a candidate in 2015 — with his warning that “they’re bringing drugs; they’re bringing crime; they’re rapists” — his depiction of immigrants has seldom varied.
As president, he has sharply cut the number of refugees admitted to the U.S., moved to deport hundreds of thousands of long-term U.S. residents, and proposed legislation that would, for the first time in nearly a century, reduce the amount of legal immigration to the country.
At the border he has tried a series of harsh policies aimed at deterring people from seeking asylum here. As Molly O’Toole showed in her detailed account of Nielsen’s tenure, those policies have failed. To Trump’s deep frustration, the number of asylum seekers has steadily increased.
A cardinal rule of most presidencies — Trump’s more than most — is that blame never lies with the president. So on Sunday, Nielsen was out. Whether she quit, as her allies say, or was fired, as the White House spins it, hardly matters. By the time the deed was done, Trump had been threatening to fire her for more than half her tenure.
In the days that followed, as O’Toole, Eli Stokols and Noah Bierman wrote, Trump’s senior domestic policy aide, Stephen Miller, helped direct a purge of senior Homeland Security officials.
Those moves made clear that Trump has no intention of changing course. Instead, harsher policies are on the way. As O’Toole wrote, the country has now reached the one-year anniversary of the administration’s family separation policy, and Trump has openly flirted with bringing the plan back in a different guise.
On top of that, the Supreme Court this fall is likely to hear arguments over whether Trump can go through with his plan to strip protections from “Dreamers,” the young immigrants who came to the U.S. illegally as children. Under the Obama administration’s DACA policy, they’ve been shielded from deportation and allowed to work legally in the U.S.
A Supreme Court ruling on their status — and a possible move to deport hundreds of thousands of them if Trump wins — would probably come in the midst of the 2020 campaign.
So immigration almost surely will play a major role in the election.
That would seem a serious problem for the president. Polls consistently show large majorities of the public oppose his immigration policies, including a wall on the southern border, separating children from their parents, deporting Dreamers or reducing the number of legal immigrants.
Many Senate Republicans aren’t keen on Trump’s recent suggestions that they plunge back into a debate on immigration, Jennifer Haberkorn wrote. They see the issue as a political loser and another invitation to stalemate.
Trump doesn’t see it that way. He has consistently focused on the issues that appeal to his core supporters, believing that his path to victory depends on keeping them unified, stirred up and turned out to vote.
And as George Washington University political scientist John Sides has shown, few issues explain support for Trump more strongly than views on immigration.
The result is a presidency — and a Republican Party — that are more and more defined by white, ethnic nationalism and determined to blunt, if not reverse, the changes in the country’s racial and ethnic balance.
Trump has other arguments to make, of course, including an economy that has remained strong. But economic growth may slow over the next year. And as Don Lee wrote, factory wages have lagged, even as the number of manufacturing jobs has grown.
So almost regardless of whom the Democrats nominate, the logic of Trump’s approach to politics guarantees that fear over immigration and a changing nation will be at the heart of his reelection campaign. Buckle up; there’s a wild ride ahead.
ALMOST MUELLER TIME
Speaking of buckling up, Atty. Gen. William Barr told Congress Tuesday that he would release a redacted version of Robert S. Mueller III’s report of his investigation within a week, Del Wilber and Chris Megerian reported.
The release will probably come Monday or Tuesday.
The text of the report almost certainly won’t reflect the “total exoneration” that Trump has claimed. But a lot of questions surround what it will say. Megerian set out some of the main things we’re waiting to learn.
Expect a major fight over how much is left out of the report. Barr says any redactions he makes will involve matters protected by grand jury secrecy rules, classified information and the identities of private individuals who are not charged with wrongdoing. Democrats almost surely will claim the black bars hide potential evidence and demand to see the full, unedited report.
Barr also upset Democrats by adopting some of the rhetoric of Trump and his supporters, saying he plans to review “spying” on the Trump campaign in 2016. The attorney general was quick to say that he hasn’t seen evidence that the FBI did anything wrong in its surveillance, but his use of the word “spying” rather than a more neutral term set off a round of partisan battling.
MAYOR PETE GETS HIS MOMENT
As Mark Barabak wrote, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg is the hottest thing in politics right now. He’s raised enough money to vault him into at least the second tier of candidates in the huge Democratic field and has jumped in polls, although he remains well behind the leaders, Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Vice President Joe Biden.
Primary contests have a long history of candidates who enjoy a turn as flavor of the month, then recede, but Buttigieg could prove more lasting. He stands as the antithesis to Trump in ways that appeal to a lot of Democrats: articulate, open to the world, oriented to public service, moderate in his language and his views, young. The fact that he’s openly gay, as well, offers another chance for Democrats to vote for a historic first, something the party’s voters like.
Leaping from city hall — in a small city, at that — to the White House at age 37 would seem unlikely, but, then, so did Trump’s victory.
Meanwhile, the Democratic field continued to get bigger, with California Rep. Eric Swalwell formally joining the field. The Democrats will soon have almost enough candidates to fill a Major League Baseball team roster, although so far, only a half a dozen or so have the kind of support they need to go the distance.
We’ll get a good look at their resources starting Monday, when candidates must file their first-quarter fundraising and spending reports with the Federal Election Commission. Evan Halper has a rundown of key questions to think about as the reports become public.
MATERNAL HEALTH AS AN ISSUE
Democrats depend heavily on the votes of women, and the U.S. stands out among developed nations for the shockingly high number of women who die or suffer serious problems during pregnancy. Those problems are particularly acute among black women, a fact that medical experts can’t quite explain, but which implicit bias in the healthcare system almost surely makes worse.
Sen. Kamala Harris is among several Democrats trying to use the campaign to highlight the racial gap in maternal health, as Melanie Mason wrote. The issue could have special power in early primary state South Carolina, where maternal deaths are particularly high and black women make up a large share of the electorate.
“NEVER” ON RELEASING TAXES
Trump used to say he would release his taxes if only they weren’t under audit. His acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, dropped that pretense recently, declaring Democrats — and the public — will “never” see the returns. Ultimately, that fight is heading for court.
RELIGIOUS RIGHTS MAY GET ANOTHER LOOK
Back when religious minorities, like the Amish, Seventh Day Adventists and Native American groups, accounted for most of the religious rights claims coming to court, conservatives tended to dismiss them.
In the early 1990s, then-Justice Antonin Scalia wrote an opinion flatly declaring that the Constitution’s guarantee of a right to “free exercise” of religion couldn’t act as a shield against laws that were “generally applicable.” So far, that precedent remains the law of the land.
Now, though, it’s religious Christians bringing the cases, asking for exemptions from state civil rights laws that protect gays and lesbians. And the court’s conservatives are taking a very different view, as David Savage wrote.
The high court may soon revisit wedding cakes and religious rights, and the justices could use the case to greatly expand the scope of the First Amendment’s “free exercise” clause.
AVENATTI’S PROBLEMS DEEPEN
The case against Michael Avenatti has grown larger and more troubling, as Michael Finnegan wrote. The Southern California lawyer, who formerly represented Stormy Daniels in her case against Trump, was indicted on 36 charges of tax dodging, perjury and theft from clients. The accusations are hair-raising, including a charge by prosecutors that Avenatti stole millions from a mentally ill, paraplegic client.
ONE FEWER “ACTING”
Trump has said he likes having top officials who serve in “acting” capacities because it gives him more flexibility. And he has a lot of them, with an acting White House chief of staff, Mulvaney, and an acting secretary of Defense, Patrick M. Shanahan, topping the list.
Thursday, the list got one name shorter as the Senate confirmed David Bernhardt as Interior secretary, allowing him to drop “acting” from his title. The confirmation came despite ethics concerns about Bernhardt’s role as a lobbyist for companies that depend on the Interior Department’s decisions, as Anna Phillips and Bettina Boxall wrote.
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