Trump rallies base with tweets on migrant caravan, threatens southern neighbors

Steering away from economic issues that resonate with Republican voters, President Donald Trump is seizing on a caravan of migrants that is traveling north through Central America to blame Democrats for the lack of progress on his immigration initiatives three weeks before the midterm elections.

With the GOP under threat of losing control of the House of Representatives, Trump returned Thursday to an issue he described as more important to him than trade and one he is willing to use the U.S military to control.

“I am watching the Democrat Party led (sic) (because they want Open Borders and existing weak laws) assault on our country by Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, whose leaders are doing little to stop this large flow of people, INCLUDING MANY CRIMINALS, from entering Mexico to U.S.,” he tweeted early Thursday. He said he must ask Mexico to stop the migrants or “I will call up the U.S. Military and CLOSE OUR SOUTHERN BORDER!”

Trump added that border security “is far more important to me than Trade” or the just-completed trade agreement among the U.S., Canada and Mexico. “All Democrats fault for weak laws!”

“There is nothing more that he can do policy wise, so he’s turned it into a political issue and blame Democrats,” said Leon Fresco, who was the deputy assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s Office of Immigration Litigation in the Obama administration. “That’s the only thing left to do because he’s not actually delivered on any of his actual promises of building the wall or reducing illegal immigration.”

Rob Stutzman, a Republican political strategist based in Sacramento, California, said Trump is keeping “a base motivating issue at the forefront.”

“Frankly, he should be talking more about economic success, but the border issues are also an advantage for him with many voters who were with him in ’16 that he needs to keep in the fold for GOP success in Senate races,” Stutzman said.

Trump has threatened to cut foreign aid to Central American countries as thousands of migrants have left the region and pushed north as part of a highly publicized caravan of migrants. The latest group has swelled to about 4,000 people is working its way north from Honduras, with people joining along the way. Mexico has dispatched federal police to its southern border to intercept them.

Since taking office,Trump has issued sweeping new directives to step up deportations of those in the country illegally, pushed Congress to pass bills that have failed to gain traction, issued executive orders that restrict visas from certain countries, introduced a politically disastrous policy to separate parents from their children at the border- that was ultimately reversed - and promised to build a massive border wall that has yet to gain funding from Congress.

Meanwhile, border numbers crossing continue to increase.

While seeing a dramatic drop in border crossings at the beginning of his term, Trump has watched as border crossings have returned to previous year numbers similar to those seen in 2014 when tens of thousands of Salvadoran, Honduran and Guatemalan family members raced to the Rio Grande Valley of Texas.

In August, border patrol agents arrested 12,774 family members, a 90 percent increase from August of last year, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

The frustration about the rising immigration numbers reportedly came to a head Thursday in the West Wing when National Security Adviser John Bolton and Chief of Staff John Kelly appeared to spar over responsibility.

In response to questions about reports of an argument, the White House again appeared to try and deflect the attention to the Democrats. “While we are passionate about solving the issue of illegal immigration, we are not angry at one another,” said Press Secretary Sarah Sanders. “However, we are furious at the failure of Congressional Democrats to help us address this growing crisis. They should be ashamed for pushing an open borders agenda and are only doing this for strictly political reasons. Despite us having the worst laws in the world and no help from democrats, our Administration is doing a great job on the border.”

Republicans fighting to retain majorities in Congress in a year when the president’s party traditionally loses ground have largely been outraised by their Democratic counterparts. Democrats need a net gain of 23 seats in the House and two in the Senate to gain control of the chambers.

Trump and his supporters insist his tough talk has nothing to do with the midterm election, but he and Republican candidates have been campaigning on the issue for months.

In an email to supporters on behalf of Martha McSally, who is running for an open Senate seat in Arizona, he spoke about the border.

“Martha is working alongside me to build our wall and secure our borders,” he wrote in an email dated Thursday. “Like me, she’s committed to closing the deadly loopholes that have allowed dangerous criminal organizations like MS-13 to flood our borders and threaten our safety.”

Trump has already made immigration a prominent part of their midterm campaigns and called voters to elect Republicans to Congress who will give him cash to build a massive border wall.

“The new platform of the Democratic Party is radical socialism and open borders,” Trump told a raucous crowd at the Las Vegas Convention Center Thursday night.

In April, Trump made a similar threat to withdraw foreign aid from Honduras after a similar caravan of migrants fled the country. The group of thousands of migrants continued to shrink as it moved north until there were only a few hundred left when they reached the border. Still some of those migrants were allowed to enter the country claiming a credible fear of returning.

Vice President Mike Pence then traveled to Guatemala and called on the leaders of the three Central American countries who are the region’s greatest source of migrants to the United States — Honduras and El Salvador, along with Guatemala — to take concrete steps to secure their borders and warn their people not to come to the United States illegally.

He demanded countries rip down public advertisements for human traffickers, expand their border police, renew the fight against corruption and gang violence, and tell their people that traveling to the United States “will only result in a hard journey and a harder life.”

Steve Cortes, a Trump ally who served on his Hispanic Advisory Council during the 2016 campaign and is serving on his 2020 Trump re-election committee, dismissed the notion that Trump is engaging in a political ploy.

“The president has been properly direct by warning these would-be border trespassers that they will not be welcome and that the countries allowing/facilitating this illegal migration will pay a substantial economic price for their complicity in attacking the sovereignty of our borders,” he said.

Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies and former State Department foreign service officer, saw Trump’s Thursday morning tweets as a message to Mexico to take this issue seriously and stop allowing Central Americans to pass through on their way to United States.

Trump understands, Vaughn said, that the United States cannot afford to allow this caravan to continue to the United States.

“There are real consequences for the United States if the caravan is not dealt with,” Vaughan said. “The president needs to take action so that this problem doesn’t get worse. It’s already a crisis by my definition.”

Franco Ordoñez: 202-383-6155, @francoordonez