Around the same time most of the political world was watching the news that President Trump’s former campaign boss, Paul Manafort, and longtime lawyer, Michael Cohen, were being convicted of crimes, police in Iowa announced a charge in a high-profile missing person case: They believe an undocumented immigrant had killed an American citizen.
Police charged a Mexican immigrant who they say was in the country illegally with the slaying of 20-year-old college student Mollie Tibbetts. The details are horrid. Police allege he saw her running along a country road last month, followed her and killed her. A month later, he led police to where the body lay covered by cornstalks.
It’s easy to be outraged by that tragedy.
It’s just as easy to politicize it, which on the worst day of the Russia investigation so far for Trump, he and his allies arguably did. It’s especially easy to do it when the case is something Trump arguably built the bulk of his campaign around: immigrants in the country illegally accused of harming Americans.
"If, then” arguments bubbled up on the right almost immediately after the charges were announced. Here’s one of the president’s allies on hard line immigration reform, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), promoting reform in a tweet around the same time the Manafort and Cohen convictions news was breaking.
At a campaign rally in West Virginia on Tuesday night, the setting in which Trump is most likely to seize on news events to remind his base why they voted for him, Trump mostly ignored the Cohen and Manafort news. But he did say this: “An illegal alien coming in very sadly from Mexico, and you saw what happened to that incredible, beautiful young woman.”
"This is a tragedy. It can be prevented,” said Fox News anchor and Trump ally Sean Hannity on his show that night.
By Wednesday morning on another of the president’s favorite TV shows, “Fox & Friends,” a promotion of the Cohen/Manafort news lasted 14 seconds, calculates The Post’s Philip Bump. The show led off with Tibbetts’s death, with a promotion that lasted 20 seconds.
By Wednesday afternoon, the White House had released a video of victims’ family members sharing the gruesome details of how their loved ones were allegedly murdered by illegal immigrants. The timing of its release was clearly in response to Tibbetts’s slaying, but it also alluded to the issue of immigrant family separations at the border with its tag line “permanently separated.”
The political message was impossible to miss: Illegal immigrants are dangerous, and Trump wants to protect you from them by whatever means necessary.
In case there was any doubt, former House speaker Newt Gingrich straight up admitted the Tibbetts tragedy is a heplful rallying cry and even distraction for Republicans in November’s midterms. “If Mollie Tibbetts is a household name by October, Democrats will be in deep trouble,” he told Axios. “If we can be blocked by Manafort-Cohen, etc., then GOP could lose House badly.”
As the jury in Manafort’s bank and tax fraud trial was deliberating Tuesday for their eventual convictions, Trump and his allies had something else entirely to talk about. The U.S. government successfully deported a 95-year-old Nazi guard to Germany, the culmination of more than a decade of efforts to get him out of the United States.
The U.S. ambassador to Germany told reporters that Trump took an interest in the case and likely helped push it over the line. But the Trump White House, as it so often does, immediately pivoted the victory to bash others, with White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders arguing they did what other administrations (read: the Obama one) could not.
The Republican National Committee seized on one aspect of the deportation — the fact that the Immigration and Customs Enforcement physically removed Jakiw Palij from his home in Queens, N.Y., as is their job — to try to bash Democrats who want to abolish the agency.
On Wednesday morning, Trump thanked a local Democrat on Twitter for praising his work on the deportation. The president was watching “Fox & Friends.”
Republicans are not the only party to be accused of politicizing tragedy, of course. They think Democrats and gun control advocates do this every time there is a mass shooting, using the horrors in the headlines to push for gun control reform. Democrats often counter that the time for action was yesterday, so they have no choice but to seize on a tragedy to try to effect change.
But the timing and the fervor of the right seizing on these two news stories is conspicuous. It comes as major legal developments threaten Trump’s own political future. It’s a safe bet Trump’s allies would surely be pushing this news in the absence of major convictions in the Russia-related investigations. But the degree to which Trump and his allies are drumming these news stories as validation for Trump is what make these stand out among the rest. Conservative media in particular has refused to give the same time of day to two major anti-Trump stories as it has the Tibbetts and Palij cases, which play in Trump’s favor.
Having a conversation about how policies could change after an immigrant in the country illegally allegedly committing a heinous crime is valid; no one is saying it isn’t. And not even the Democrats who want to abolish ICE think the United States made a mistake in deporting a Nazi.
But there’s a big difference between having a conversation about these news events and hyping them up in a way that makes it look like Republicans would rather not talk about other things happening in the news.