WASHINGTON — President Trump’s closing argument is now clear: Build tent cities for migrants. End birthright citizenship. Fear the caravan. Send active-duty troops to the border. Refuse asylum.
Immigration has been the animating force of the Trump presidency, and now — facing the possibility that Republicans will lose control of Congress on Tuesday — the president has fully embraced a dark, anti-immigrant message in the hope that stoking fear will motivate voters to show up for his party’s candidates across the country.
Eager to shift the national conversation away from the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre and the pipe bombs delivered by a Trump supporter, the president’s political team has in recent days urged him to use his bully pulpit to ratchet up the nation’s sense of alarm about the dangers of migrants heading for the border.
The president did not need much convincing.
Trump said Thursday that he plans to sign an order next week that could lead to the large-scale detention of migrants crossing the southern border and bar anyone caught crossing illegally from claiming asylum — two legally dubious proposals.
Trump also said he had told the military mobilizing at the Southwest border that if US troops face rock-throwing migrants, they should react as though the rocks were ‘‘rifles.’’
‘‘This is an invasion,’’ Trump declared at the White House in a rambling, campaign-style speech that was billed as a response to caravans of migrants traveling slowly by foot toward the US border. But Trump offered few details on how exactly he planned to overhaul an asylum system he claimed was plagued by ‘‘endemic abuse’’ that he said ‘‘makes a mockery of our immigration system.’’
On Wednesday afternoon, he tweeted out a 53-second, expletive-filled video that features immigrants charged with violent crimes and images of a throng of brown-skinned men breaching a barrier and running forward. The president’s message was clear: Immigrants will kill you and the Democrats are to blame.
“It is outrageous what the Democrats are doing to our Country,” Trump wrote in the tweet, part of a grim warning about the dangers of immigrants that has left some Republicans — including House Speaker Paul Ryan — uneasy heading into Tuesday’s voting.
Still, the president’s dark rhetoric has clearly put some Democratic candidates on the defensive, especially in conservative states where Trump won by wide margins in 2016. In the last several days, Senator Claire McCaskill, Democrat of Missouri, has embraced some of the president’s anti-immigrant messaging as she fights for reelection, telling Fox News that “I do not want our borders overrun, and I support the president’s efforts to make sure they’re not.”
For the president, the late-in-the-game focus on immigration is a natural return to the most enduring strategy of his career as a public figure. Using immigrants to generate fear was a central tool that he employed to grab the public’s attention when he was just a celebrity. And it was the key to his winning the presidency.
Now, with polls showing Democrats ahead in many critical House races, Trump is using presidential brute force to all but take over the campaign communications strategies for Republican candidates across the country. In tweets, rally speeches, interviews, campaign ads, and off-the-cuff remarks to reporters, the president has made immigrants the singular object of his attention.
Trump is betting that a relentless focus on the threat he envisions from south-of-the-border immigrants, combined with his repeated assertion that Democrats are to blame for letting them into the country, will energize conservative supporters. And he is hoping that the dark imagery will not alienate suburban voters — especially women — who have already been abandoning Republicans in droves.
It is a risky bet. Last year, the Republican candidate for governor in Virginia lost after running dark ads warning of the dangers of marauding MS-13 gangs in the state. And some congressional Republicans have grimaced at the president’s determined effort to shift the conversation away from issues like low unemployment, tax cuts, conservative Supreme Court justices, and reduced regulation.
At the beginning of the week, Trump’s campaign put out a 60-second television ad appealing to the message those Republicans have advocated. It featured a suburban woman who frets about the possibility that the economic recovery could be fleeting. But the attention paid to that ad was quickly overtaken by the president’s comments about the dangers of the Central American caravan and his new ad about the cop-killing immigrant.
The dueling spots represent two completely opposite messages Trump is pushing to two different audiences in the run-up to the midterm contests, with a two-pronged strategy to match.
By launching a television ad that is expensive to produce and to broadcast, the president’s campaign was making a direct appeal to a demographic that is hostile to Trump — and the biggest source of worry for Republicans battling to hold onto their seats — with an economy-based message that omitted any mention or picture of the president.
The immigration video includes courtroom footage of Luis Bracamontes, a twice-deported Mexican immigrant sentenced to death this year for killing two California law enforcement officers. It was meant to speak to Trump’s anti-immigrant base, which rallied behind his racially tinged messages starting with his 2015 speech announcing his campaign, when he singled out Mexican immigrants as criminals and rapists.
“You put an ad out like that, that gets a lot of press and it reaches one group of people — the base — while the other ad is going after a totally different group of independent Republicans,” said Jim Innocenzi, a Republican media strategist.
Material from the Associated Press was included in this report.