Opinion writer

THE MORNING PLUM:

President Trump lies with such frequency, and his ignorance of policy basics is so omnipresent, that it’s often easy to allow the superficial absurdity of his statements to distract us from the actual underlying point he’s making. In some cases, that underlying point is more reprehensible than the surface falsehoods he employed to convey it.

Case in point: This morning, Trump uncorked a tweetstorm about “caravans” of people making their way north through Mexico toward the southern border, adding that they want to take advantage of the protections enjoyed by the “dreamers.” Everyone is focused on the obvious silliness of this rant: Those protections are only for people previously brought here illegally as children within a particular time window, and couldn’t be applied to these new arrivals.

But this, while true, misses another key point: Trump actually appears to be making a very real argument about people seeking asylum in the United States that should not escape notice. Here’s what Trump said:

Mexico has the absolute power not to let these large “Caravans” of people enter their country. They must stop them at their Northern Border, which they can do because their border laws work, not allow them to pass through into our country, which has no effective border laws. … Congress must immediately pass Border Legislation, use Nuclear Option if necessary, to stop the massive inflow of Drugs and People. Border Patrol Agents (and ICE) are GREAT, but the weak Dem laws don’t allow them to do their job. Act now Congress, our country is being stolen!

DACA is dead because the Democrats didn’t care or act, and now everyone wants to get onto the DACA bandwagon … No longer works. Must build Wall and secure our borders with proper Border legislation. Democrats want No Borders, hence drugs and crime!

Those “caravans” Trump appears to be referring to are the hundreds of Central Americans who have been making their way up through Mexico, something that has been airing on Fox News and has been nagging at the president. As a BuzzFeed reporter who has been traveling with them reports, about 80 percent of them are from Honduras and many are fleeing poverty, violence and political unrest, and many want to apply for asylum or potentially cross the border illegally.

Trump’s claims about this are a jumble of lies and incoherence. Trump killed Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). Trump is why the protections for the dreamers remain “dead,” as he rejected numerous Democratic offers of concessions in exchange for those protections, including money for his wall. (The battle over the dreamers’ fates is tied up in the courts.) Regardless, the people in the “caravans” couldn’t jump on the DACA “bandwagon” anyway, since to do so they’d have to meet all sorts of qualifications that they don’t meet.

But nonetheless, Trump’s insistence that Mexico should stop the “caravans,” because U.S. laws won’t, may actually mean something significant.

As immigration lawyer David Leopold points out to me this morning, under current law, it’s perfectly legal for those people (with limited exceptions) to apply for asylum if they reach the U.S. border. (Whether they get granted asylum is a separate question.) Trump’s rant appears to be saying this should not be the case — that they shouldn’t be allowed to apply for asylum, and that U.S. law should be changed to prevent it.

After all, it’s already illegal for them to try to cross illegally. Trump is saying Mexico must stop them because we cannot under U.S. law, and he’s calling for a new law that would change that. The only relevant change here would be to prevent or limit their ability to apply for asylum. “He’s saying that is a bad border law — that the legal way for them to enter temporarily should be ended,” Leopold tells me. “He’s saying that in order to have effective border laws, we need to cut out the asylum process. That’s a radical shift.”

Trump may not understand the legal details of what he is saying. But that’s beside the point: Trump actually appears to be making a substantive, if general, point, about how we should deal with people who turn up at the border claiming to be fleeing horrific conditions in their home countries. And it is perfectly plausible that Trump means they shouldn’t be allowed to apply for asylum. This is not the same as saying our process for dealing with asylum seekers should be streamlined to eliminate some legal protections for them in order to clear the courts of backlogs, which Attorney General Jeff Sessions is already doing. Trump is calling for a change in the law.

No, there isn’t going to be any actual change in the law that cuts that back, even if Trump wants it. But Trump is the president, and it matters what he thinks. We should want a further accounting of this line of his thinking. As immigration scholar Hiroshi Motomura puts it, “law and popular culture have come to accept that asylum seekers are unlike other unauthorized migrants,” in accordance with “humanitarian obligations” that are rooted in post-World War II international conventions and norms. It is perfectly likely that Trump believes we should no longer be beholden to such conventions and norms. And in the coming days and weeks, he may start to make this point more explicitly.

* GOP LEADERS CAN’T IMAGINE TRUMP WOULD FIRE MUELLER: The New York Times reports on all the possible ways Trump could try to shut down the Mueller probe, including a direct effort to remove him. This is an extraordinary revelation:

Speaker Paul D. Ryan and Representative Robert W. Goodlatte of Virginia, the Judiciary Committee’s chairman, have given no indication of how they would proceed, and aides say privately that Republican leaders view the possibility of Mr. Mueller’s firing as too improbable to warrant hypothetical discussions.

Really? Do they not remember that Trump actually did order his White House counsel to fire Mueller and backed down only after the lawyer threatened to quit?

* TRUMP’S TRADE WAR ESCALATES: China just announced that it has become the first country to directly retaliate against Trump’s tariffs:

The Chinese government plans to immediately impose tariffs on 128 U.S. products, including pork and certain fruits … A number of U.S. agriculture firms have warned they could be caught in the middle of a trade war … In addition to pork, the new tariffs from the Chinese government will include U.S. exports of apples, oranges, almonds, pineapples, grapes, watermelons, cranberries, strawberries, raspberries, cherries, and a host of other items.

This should do wonders for Trump country, just as he promised. Oh, wait, actually, these tariffs could actually hurt Trump country pretty badly.

* TRUMP COUNTRY IS WARY OF TARIFFS: The Associated Press talks to voters in Sioux County, Iowa (80 percent of which went for Trump) about Trump’s tariffs on China, and finds widespread worry about a trade war:

After standing with Trump through the many trials of his first year, some Sioux County Trump voters say they would be willing to walk away from the president if the fallout from the tariffs causes a lasting downturn in the farm economy. “I wouldn’t sit here today and say I will definitely support him again,” said 60-year-old hog farmer Marv Van Den Top. “This here could be a real negative for him.”

But aren’t the mass deportations, the bluster about a wall, the veiled Muslim ban, and the huge tax cuts for corporations showering prosperity on Sioux County?

* GOP ADS ARE OBSESSED WITH PELOSI: USA Today finds that House GOP candidates are placing a rather heavy emphasis on Nancy Pelosi:

The House Democratic leader has been featured in roughly one-third (34%) of all GOP broadcast ads aired in House races this year, according to data provided … by Kantar Media’s Campaign Media Analysis Group, which tracks political advertising.

Even better, 58 percent of the GOP ads in the Pennsylvania special election mentioned Pelosi — but that wasn’t enough to put Republicans over the top in a district Trump carried by 20 points.

* A GOOD RESPONSE TO CONSERVATIVES ON GUNS: Conservatives like to say that liberals calling for better gun regulations don’t acknowledge the role that human immorality plays in gun deaths. E.J. Dionne Jr. responds:

The human capacity for sin and evil requires us to consider that denying someone the right to own an AR-15 may enhance the right to life of far more people than those restrained by such a restriction. Background checks are based on the view that if we can keep weapons out of the hands of those who have a record of perpetrating violence (as well as those with psychiatric problems), we can reduce the number of evil acts that people are, indeed, quite capable of performing.

At a certain point, the conservative refusal to recognize that this is the liberal argument has to be chalked up to sheer bad faith.

* COULD TRUMP’S FAILURE ON ‘DREAMERS’ TIP CONGRESS? Bloomberg’s Sahil Kapur reports that Trump’s killing of a deal to protect the dreamers is resonating in multiple Senate and House races:

A sizable majority of Americans, especially Democrats and independents, support giving legal status to Dreamers, opinion polls have shown. The topic resonates especially in California, Arizona, Texas, Florida and Nevada — states with large Hispanic populations where Democrats are seeking to chip away at the Republican majorities in the House and Senate.

Remember, the Democratic win in Alabama means there is at least an outside route to Democratic control of the Senate, via Nevada and Arizona, both of which are Latino-heavy.

* AND TRUMP’S TWEETSTORM WAS REACTION TO FOX: Over the weekend, Trump also raged on Twitter about how immigrants cause crime, vowing there would be “NO MORE DACA DEAL.” Katie Rogers reports:

The president, who spent much of his holiday weekend golfing with supporters and watching television, was apparently reacting to a “Fox and Friends” segment on immigration that had aired minutes before.

As the saying goes, garbage in, garbage out.