Trump in recent days has made aggressive moves aimed at pushing policies that could boost Republicans next week — deploying more than 5,000 troops to the U.S.-Mexico border in the largest such operation since the Mexican Revolution, floating the idea of ending birthright citizenship and warning that he intends to halt a caravan of Central American migrants.
He ratcheted up the rhetoric further Wednesday by saying that the number of troops at the border could increase to 15,000 — more than currently deployed in Afghanistan.
The president has also moved to lower Medicare drug prices and suggested the idea of a 10 percent tax cut for the middle class, sending administration and congressional officials scrambling to assemble a new tax policy.
The cumulative acts reflect the extent to which Trump has transformed parts of the federal bureaucracy into a factory of threats, directives and actions — an outgrowth of a campaign strategy which the president and his political advisers settled on as their best chance to hold the Republican congressional majorities.
“This is the most focused and concerted effort to use all of the powers of the presidency to shape a midterm election that I have ever seen,” said William A. Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Governance Studies Program and a former domestic policy adviser in the Clinton administration.
“President Trump is pushing every button on the console and he is mobilizing all of the power, including the communications power, of the federal government on behalf of his party’s campaign in this midterm,” Galston said.
The president and his political advisers have decided that a base turnout strategy is the best way to preserve the GOP’s Senate and House majorities, with Trump wielding the polarizing issue of immigration as a cudgel in an attempt to motivate his 2016 supporters to vote.
Trump suggested in an interview with Axios released Tuesday that he intends to end the constitutional right to U.S. citizenship for children born in the United States to noncitizens. Many legal experts as well as House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) said the president does not have such unilateral authority. Still, Trump’s move seemed designed to revive the “anchor baby” debate that he helped lead en route to his victory in the 2016 Republican presidential primaries.
For days, Trump has been warning of “an invasion” of Central American migrants, even though they are traveling by foot in caravans, their population is dwindling and they are not expected to reach the border for several weeks. The administration announced Monday that it was sending 5,200 troops, military helicopters and giant spools of razor wire to the southern border. Trump has dispatched top administration officials, including Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, on a media tour to echo his hard-line position and draw attention to the caravan.
In addition, Trump has been preparing a major immigration policy rollout — initially scheduled for Tuesday but postponed in the wake of the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre — that is expected to include the call to temporarily shut the border to the migrants and deny them the opportunity to seek asylum.
He kept up the drumbeat on Twitter on Wednesday: “We will NOT let these Caravans, which are made up of some very bad thugs and gang members, into the U.S. Our Border is sacred, must come in legally. TURN AROUND!”
Trump is hardly the first president to take actions aimed at energizing his party’s base, though he is arguably more aggressive about it than his predecessors. In 2004, President George W. Bush and his campaign championed a wave of state initiatives banning same-sex marriage that helped drive up turnout among conservative voters. In the summer of 2014, President Barack Obama announced his intention to use his executive authority to make broad changes to the nation’s immigration system.
Within the White House and Trump’s broader orbit, the president’s advisers and confidants are sensitive to the suggestion that he is leveraging the government to advance his political aims. Instead, they argue, Trump’s long-held beliefs and policy prescriptions on immigration align with current events while also politically benefiting the Republican Party.
“This is not a case where Trump is just politically calculating policies to fit what he wants done politically,” said one former White House official, who like some others interviewed spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. “It’s a case where what helps him politically also matches up perfectly with where he is policy-wise.”
Vice President Pence said Tuesday that the troop deployment was not a political ploy but rather an appropriate and necessary response to the “crisis on our southern border.”
“I can tell you, being out among the American people, there’s great concern, great alarm among many Americans to see this vast throng of people coming up for the express purpose of coming into our country illegally,” Pence said at a Politico Playbook event. “The president is simply determined to make sure that we’ve got the manpower on the border.”
Sam Nunberg, a former Trump campaign adviser, said the president’s recent moves on immigration are politically savvy.
“The optics of the president sending troops to the border along with having Homeland Security Secretary Nielsen announce that none of the illegal immigrants are getting through once again makes this a top issue which will increase base turnout this last crucial week,” Nunberg said.
Trump has sought to make the midterm elections a referendum on himself, believing his supporters will only turn out to support Republican lawmakers if they think his presidency is at stake.
“I’m not on the ticket, but I am on the ticket,” Trump said at a rally this month in Southhaven, Miss. “I want you to vote. Pretend I’m on the ballot.”
In recent weeks, Trump has sought to take action in other areas as well to show progress and motivate voters. He teased a 10 percent tax cut for middle-income families — and said Congress would take action on it before the elections, even though there is no official proposal and lawmakers are not scheduled to be in session until after the midterms.
Trump also took action to lower drug prices by allowing Medicare to directly negotiate prices with drug companies — a move the president called “revolutionary.”
But Trump has focused mostly on hammering the issue of immigration, the most animating theme of his 2016 campaign. By doing so, he is effectively putting his name and agenda on the ballot, in spirit if not in letter. As a second former White House official put it, “immigration gives some of that 2016 flair” to the midterms.
With Trump heading to the campaign trail on Wednesday for 11 “Make America Great Again” rallies in the final six days before the elections, immigration has become a core theme of his stump speeches.
“We can’t let people break in and assault our country,” Trump said Saturday in Murphysboro, Ill. “You saw the caravan. I mean, you look at it. Sometimes it is massive. How the hell can we take everyone in? And some of these people are people that we don’t want.”
Polling consistently shows that immigration is an especially trenchant issue for Republican voters. Three-quarters of registered Republicans ranked immigration as “one of the single most important” issues or a “very important” issue driving their midterm votes, just behind the economy and taxes, according to an early October Washington Post-ABC News poll.
“Immigration is obviously an important issue. There’s no question about that,” GOP pollster David Winston said. “Trump clearly believes this was a key part of how he succeeded in the Republican primary. As a result, it’s an issue he is particularly comfortable with introducing when he feels it’s needed. Having said that, what’s central to where Republicans are at the moment is how the economy’s doing.”
Immigration is a powerful motivating issue for Republican voters in many of the Senate battlegrounds — red states including Indiana, Missouri, North Dakota, Tennessee and West Virginia, where Trump is popular. But Trump’s focus on the topic presents complications for vulnerable House Republicans struggling to fend off Democratic challenges in suburban districts in states such as California, Florida and Pennsylvania.
But unlike in 2016, when the GOP was more divided over how closely to hew to Trump’s immigration rhetoric and policies, the party largely has fallen in line behind the president.
A slew of Republican Senate and gubernatorial candidates are parroting Trump’s talking points on immigration in their advertising. Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R), who is running for Senate in Tennessee, is airing an ad about the caravan in which a narrator says the caravan includes “gang members, known criminals, people from the Middle East, possibly even terrorists.” Trump last week drew widespread criticism for tweeting without evidence that “criminals and unknown Middle Easterners are mixed in,” later admitting he had no proof for the latter.
Jennifer Duffy, senior editor at the Cook Political Report, said she has been struck by how pervasive Trump’s language on immigration has been in the campaign’s final stretch.
“Fear is a pretty powerful emotion and thus a pretty powerful motivator,” Duffy said. “Is there a downside? Policy-wise, yes. Politically, no.”
Emily Guskin contributed to this report.