Trump refitted his tweets and his rhetoric into his current position with pro forma language that at times had a jarring effect. At the outset of his speech on Saturday, for example, Trump spoke of having attended a naturalization ceremony and described the words he offered the new citizens.
“I told them that the beauty and majesty of citizenship is that it draws no distinctions of race, or class, or faith, or gender or background,” Trump said, adding that “we are all equal. We are one team, and one people, proudly saluting one great American flag. We believe in a safe and lawful system of immigration, one that upholds our laws, our traditions and our most cherished values.”
Typical patriotic presidential rhetoric. But it’s not what Trump actually presents as policy.
He has specifically advocated an immigration policy that explicitly considers background and, indirectly, class in demanding that those who migrate to the United States have particular skills before being cleared for entry. He has repeatedly tried to put into effect his campaign trail pledge to bar people of the Muslim faith from entering the country by implementing a ban on migration from specific Muslim-majority countries. Trump’s immigration policies aren’t the colorblind, neutral ones for which presidential rhetoric has been honed over the years, but he uses that rhetoric anyway.
In part this is because Trump is indifferent to accuracy in the things he says. He’s a salesman, as he always has been, and it’s a better sales pitch to hail the American Dream than it is to admit you’ve tailored many immigrants out of that dream. Just as it’s a better apartment sales pitch to claim a view of Central Park than to point out that the view comes from a one-foot gap between two buildings that fill most of your window.
Trump’s indifference to accuracy also took its more typical, more direct form during the address. Consider the following line.
"If we build a powerful and fully designed see-through steel barrier on our southern border, the crime rate and drug problem in our country would be quickly and greatly reduced,” Trump said. “Some say it could be cut in half."
This is a standard sort of political appeal in broad strokes. We must do X so that Y will result. But considered specifically, its Trumpiness is obvious.
The X we must do is “build a powerful and fully designed see-through steel barrier.” How is a series of steel slats “powerful”? Do we occasionally build things that are only partly designed? Trump sprinkles aggressive adjectives into his sentences like spices from a cook at a bad diner, with similar digestive results.
Here it’s the Y that’s more questionable. Building a wall will “quickly and greatly” reduce “the crime rate and drug problem,” he claims, even slicing them in half, according to experts.” Past presidents, when making a sweeping claim that taking some action would cut the nation’s crime rate and drug use in half would point to a bit of research that offers some evidence for that hard-to-believe claim. Trump just sort of waves his hand at it. Why he doesn’t simply say the move would end all crime and all drug use isn’t clear.
Data from various parts of Trump’s administration itself makes clear that the claim about drug use in particular is unfounded. Most drugs enter the country through existing ports of entry, smuggled in vehicles on people’s bodies. But the specter of drug abuse has been impossible for Trump to resist in pitching his wall.
Speaking of impossible to resist, here’s Trump on the risks posed to migrants:
"Thousands of children are being exploited by ruthless coyotes and vicious cartels and gangs. One in three women is sexually assaulted on the dangerous journey north. In fact, many loving mothers give their young daughters birth control pills for the long journey up to the United States because they know they may be raped or sexually accosted or assaulted,” he claimed. “Nearly 50 migrants a day are being referred for urgent medical care."
Trump is conflating a lot of things here. There is a real risk posed to women who migrate to the United States, including that assertion about birth control. The “urgent medical care” line includes an average of 11 migrants a day who are in distress when apprehended by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, many, it’s safe to assume, suffering from having tried to cross a wide desert.
That claim about the “thousands of children,” though, has never been well documented by the administration. There’s no clear time period offered. In the past, the administration has pointed to numbers that essentially count any child arriving at the border with an adult who isn’t an immediate relative (including family friends) as being potentially “trafficked.”
“I’ve gotten to know and love angel moms, dads and family who lost loved ones to people illegally in our country,” Trump said at another point. “I want this to end. It’s got to end now. These are not talking points. These are the heartbreaking realities that are hurting innocent, precious human beings every single day on both sides of the border.”
One reason Trump talks about the families of those killed by immigrants in the country illegally, including things such as drunken driving, is because it seems cruel to diminish their loss by adding context to his assertions. As has been established repeatedly, though, the number of American families suffering because they lost loved ones as a result of the actions of American citizens far outnumbers those who lost loved ones because of undocumented immigrants — who, research shows, commit crimes at rates lower than people born in this country.
After Trump reiterated his case for the wall, he returned to the lofty language of the presidency.
"I am here today,” he said, “to break the logjam and provide Congress with a path forward to end the government shutdown and solve the crisis on the southern border."
It’s Trump who’s compromising. It’s Trump who has decided to set partisanship aside and get the job done, just what you’d expect of a president.
Setting aside that a compromise existed in December that Trump rejected after facing pressure from conservative commentators over not fighting for the wall, it’s important to note that Trump’s new proposal was also not much of a compromise.
“That is our plan: border security, DACA, TPS, and many other things,” Trump said. “Straightforward, fair, reasonable and common sense, with lots of compromise.”
DACA is Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, an Obama-era policy that allowed people brought illegally into the country as children to stay here legally. Trump announced an end to that policy earlier in his administration. TPS is similar: Temporary protected status allows certain groups of migrants fleeing particular hardships to remain — a status that Trump has moved to end in a number of cases.
In other words, Trump rejected compromise in December and, in January, is compromising by offering not to kill the hostages he took earlier. Trump’s speech has the appearance of a presidential offer to break through disagreement but really offers little that fits that definition. (The actual policy introduced by the White House is even less of a compromise than Trump’s speech suggested.)
Update: As The Post reported on Tuesday, the renewal of DACA articulated in the final proposed policy would also implement new income requirements for participants. How that squares with “drawing no distinctions on class” is unclear.
Earlier this month, Trump attempted to use the traditional Oval Office address to cloak his arguments about the wall in the garb of presidential authority. It didn’t take. On Saturday, he did something similar, deploying the structure and rhetoric of a typical presidential speech to imply that he was taking a typical presidential action.