The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Republicans swallowed the bait whole on Trump’s terrorists-in-the-caravan innuendo

President Trump's misleading claims about the caravan of migrants headed toward the U.S. is a mirror image of his 2016 campaign tactics. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

President Trump’s closing argument in the 2018 campaign was all about fear — fear that a caravan of migrants coming up from Central America was so dangerous that it warranted the deployment of thousands of troops. He even suggested there were terrorists in that caravan.

None of this was backed up by the facts. But Republicans bought it anyway.

A new Monmouth University poll shows nearly three-fourths (72 percent) of Republicans regard the caravan, which still has yet to arrive, as a threat to the United States. More than half (54 percent) regard it as a “major” threat.

But the full extent of the GOP’s embrace of Trump’s fearmongering came in the response to another question. Monmouth asked whether people believed that there were terrorists in the caravan, a suggestion that Trump made and then admitted he had no real evidence of. Even thought Trump appeared to back off from that claim, 47 percent of Republicans believe there are terrorists in the caravan. And, when pressed, another 16 percent suggest it was more likely than not. That’s nearly two-thirds of Republicans who think the caravan includes terrorists seeking to do this country harm.

There is simply no evidence of terrorists in the caravan. Even more, the evidence the administration has pointed to actually paints the opposite picture. When asked last month about Trump’s claim, Vice President Pence alleged that “in the last fiscal year, we apprehended more than 10 terrorists or suspected terrorists per day at our Southern border.” That was false.

In fact, the Department of Homeland Security says 10 suspected terrorists per day are denied entry to the United States at all ports of entry — not just the Southern border. The State Department said in mid-2017 that there was “no credible information that any member of a terrorist group has traveled through Mexico to gain access to the United States.” Anonymous administration officials have said Trump’s suggestion is baseless. And the last caravan included few illegal border-crossers; most of them legally requested asylum.

Shortly after Pence’s comments, Trump himself seemed to admit that he was just speculating, that the vast resources at his disposal as president had never actually substantiated his claim. “They could very well be,” Trump said of terrorists in the caravan. “There’s no proof of anything. There’s no proof of anything. But they could very well be."

Here’s the thing that might get lost in all of this: Trump never actually said there were terrorists in the caravan. All he had to do was suggest it was possible, and now nearly two-thirds of Republicans believe it. Trump’s tweet above refers to “unknown Middle Easterners” in the caravan. He planted that seed knowing it would be interpreted as potential terrorists. That’s how Pence seemed to take it and how journalists had to take it. By the time Trump admitted he had no actual evidence of that claim, that seed had germinated.

This is how Trump spreads conspiracy theories: by saying something that is difficult to disprove and may carry a whiff of truth, but which points a blinking red arrow at what Trump is really trying to say. Oftentimes that blinking red arrow points at something Republicans are anxious to believe — in this case, that migrants can be dangerous. Even when the media fact-check it and Trump admits he’s spewing baseless allegations, it’s too late. And in many ways, the fact-checking only makes Trump’s followers more likely to buy into his innuendo.

It seemed to have the desired impact on the 2018 election — at least in red-state Senate races — but it’s a hell of a way to do business as a government.