The political and economic stakes will be high Friday when President Donald Trump heads to the U.S.-Mexico border after rankling members of both parties with a threat to close all ports of entry. But as lawmakers fret, he is keeping a major re-election issue on the minds of his supporters.
Trump flashed his unique approach to immigration and foreign policy last week when he floated the notion of closing the ports as a way to gain leverage over Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador — by preventing migrants from those countries from trekking up the U.S. border, which he will see Friday in Southern California. He is also using the threat to get Mexico to stop migrants as they move through that country.
And this week, the president and his aides began using the threat to pressure congressional Democrats to come to the table about an as-yet-undefined immigration deal amid an uptick in illegal border crossings and migrant apprehensions.
“We’d love to work with Congress. We’d love to work bipartisan … to try to solve that, to work with Mexico to try to try to solve their issues [with the migrants],” White House chief economic adviser Larry Kudlow said Wednesday, portraying Trump’s threat as one already showing results.
“I think the Mexicans actually are trying to help out, from what I can gather,” Kudlow said. “And they are making strides.”
Flashback: Trump announces national emergency on border, despite likely legal challenge
A winning issue?
Trump is placing a large bet on immigration again being one of the main themes for him on the campaign trail. His promise to implement hard-line policies and erect a border wall helped him shock the world when he won in 2016.
“Security is more important to me than trade,” the president said Tuesday as he tried to keep alive his threat — and, for him and his aides, his leverage at home and abroad.
On Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and a Department of Homeland Security official in separate interactions with reporters put the onus on Congress to fix the situation at the border — where even Obama-era DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson now says there is a “crisis.” Their boss followed suit a few hours later.
“Congress has to meet quickly and make a deal,” Trump said without describing what he would sign. That’s a move that has frustrated even many GOP leaders and lawmakers several times before, leaving them grasping for what to put in legislation. “If we don’t make a deal with Congress, the border’s going to be closed.”
There is no evidence that any paradigm-shifting immigration legislation that could pass both chambers and garner Trump’s signature is even being discussed.
The threat has GOP lawmakers scrambling to convince the president to keep the ports open so billions in goods can move between the countries, as well as workers and tourists — both of which also provide an economic boost. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Tuesday urged the president to avoid ordering a closure, as did vulnerable GOP senators facing tough re-election fights in 2020.
One is Maine’s Susan Collins, who said she worries about “what the impact would be on consumers and businesses in this country.”
“We get an awful lot of, this time of year, fresh fruit and vegetables from Mexico,” she said Monday. “There are supply chains in the automobile industry that extend into Mexico, and the closing of the border could well cause layoffs in this country. … But I certainly understand the president’s frustration [that] the number of people crossing illegally continues to grow.”
All about 2020
While Trump has admittedly been frustrated by that increase, his Wednesday morning tweet about his shelved call for a new GOP health care plan showed his re-election battle is never far from his mind.
In defending his renewed health care push, the president wrote that replacing former President Barack Obama’s signature law “will be a great campaign issue” because his long-promised — but never delivered — plan “will be on full display during the Election as a much better & less expensive alternative to ObamaCare.”
I was never planning a vote prior to the 2020 Election on the wonderful HealthCare package that some very talented people are now developing for me & the Republican Party. It will be on full display during the Election as a much better & less expensive alternative to ObamaCare...— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 3, 2019
...This will be a great campaign issue. I never asked Mitch McConnell for a vote before the Election as has been incorrectly reported (as usual) in the @nytimes, but only after the Election when we take back the House etc. Republicans will always support pre-existing conditions!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 3, 2019
The same is true of immigration.
One GOP source expressed befuddlement over the president’s recent health care push and his border closure threat. The source could only offer a best guess that Trump wants to blame Democrats for the situation at the border, knowing legislation is unlikely to move before Election Day 2020.
“It’s pretty clear he’s stirring up a crisis at the border because he thinks it’ll play well with his base during the re-elect,” said James Manley, a Democratic strategist. “Now, when he leaves Senate Republicans holding the bag on health care or immigration or what have you, it looks bad for them — and many of them need to get re-elected at the same time as the president.”
“If it wasn’t clear before, it sure is now: The only thing Donald Trump cares about is Donald Trump,” Manley added. “The message for Republicans in Congress, from his health care and border moves, is simple: You’re on your own — I’m doing my thing. … And, once again, he’s left his own policy operation careening blindly toward a new crisis.”
Ahead of Trump’s Friday visit to Southern California where he will tour a portion of the border wall, aides have been searching for ways to convince him of how serious a economic hit closing the border would unleash. They’ve spent the last few days looking for possible ways to limit the potential economic damage of a closure, including keeping freight shipments moving while closing vehicular and foot crossings.
Notably, the typically optimistic and jovial Kudlow has appeared stoic this week while discussing a closure’s impacts and his talks with the president. Earlier this week, he and Council of Economic Advisers Chairman Kevin Hassett met privately with Trump to warn about shuttering the border ports — and he indicated the message ran counter to the boss’s inclination to give the order.
“We felt the need to give him some advice. That’s what we’re there for,” Kudlow said. “We give him good news. We give him bad news.”