WASHINGTON – Days after yielding to pressure to reverse his policy of separating migrant families at the southern border, President Donald Trump on Friday returned to the nativist rhetoric that animated his outsider presidential campaign, casting immigrants as threats to “our citizens.”
Seeking to counter the intense criticism of his border policies, Trump invited to the White House families of Americans killed by immigrants in the country illegally to tell their stories of being “permanently separated” from loved ones.
“These are the stories that Democrats and people that are weak on immigration, they don’t want to discuss, they don’t want to hear, they don’t want to see, they don’t want to talk about,” Trump said.
Trump and many of the family members who spoke criticized what they called one-sided media coverage that does not focus on their stories.
“My separation is permanent,” said a distraught mother, Michelle Wilson-Root, whose daughter Sarah Root was killed in 2016 by a person in the country illegally who was allegedly driving drunk. “Sarah is never coming home.”
Neither Trump nor the family members directly mentioned the policy he reversed Wednesday to remove children from their parents indefinitely if the family crosses the border illegally.
But the entire event was an attempt to shift attention from the plight of traumatized children and what Trump and some close advisers consider misplaced sympathy.
“We weren’t lucky enough to be separated for five days or 10 days; we’re separated permanently,” said Laura Wilkerson, whose son Josh was killed in 2010. “Any time we want to see or be close to our kids, we go to the cemetery because that’s where they are. We could never speak to them, we can’t Skype with them.”
The president blamed Democrats for what he called weak immigration laws and policies that treat those in the county illegally too leniently. He railed against the MS-13 gang, heroin from outside the United States and so called “catch and release” immigration enforcement.
He cited statistics, some discredited, about the amount of crime committed by undocumented immigrants.
“I always hear that, ‘Oh, no, the population’s safer than the people that live in the country,’” Trump said, referring to statistical evidence he rejects that shows those in the country illegally commit crime at a lower rate than legal residents.
“You’ve heard that, fellas, right? You’ve heard that. I hear it so much, and I say, ‘Is that possible?’” Trump said. “The answer is it’s not true. You hear it’s like they’re better people than what we have, than our citizens. It’s not true.”
Also Friday, Trump said that Republicans should stop “wasting their time” on immigration, suggesting they put off efforts to pass legislation until after the November elections, when he predicted more GOP members of Congress will be elected.
Trump’s comments, in a morning tweet, came after Republican House leaders abruptly postponed a vote Thursday on a broad immigration bill intended to unite GOP moderates and conservatives, acknowledging they lack the votes to pass the measure despite the growing uproar over separating migrant families at the border.
Trump’s tweet, GOP aides said, could make the task of corralling votes for the bill significantly more difficult heading into the weekend, though House Republican leaders said negotiations would continue.
“Republicans should stop wasting their time on Immigration until after we elect more Senators and Congressmen/women in November,” Trump wrote. “Dems are just playing games, have no intention of doing anything to solves this decades old problem. We can pass great legislation after the Red Wave!”
The two immigration bills under consideration in the House this week sought to respond to a pair of brewing crises precipitated by Trump: his decision to separate migrant children from their families at the southwest border, and his cancellation of a program protecting young undocumented immigrants from deportation.
Trump has repeatedly claimed falsely that the crisis at the border – which stemmed from his administration’s new “zero tolerance” policy – was the fault of Democrats.
In a later tweet, Trump also accused Democrats of telling “phony stories of sadness and grief” to help gain the upper hand in this year’s elections.
Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., said Trump was “expressing his frustration” at a lack of Democratic involvement on the issue and that efforts will continue to find enough votes to pass a bill. But Scalise acknowledged it will be “an uphill fight.”
“We’re going to move forward,” he said. “We’re going to have a vote. ... It would be nice if you had at least one Democrat who was willing to vote for a bill that secures America’s border, and so far none have been willing to do that.”
Responding to Trump’s latest tweets, Democrats – who are optimistic they will pick up seats in both chambers of Congress in November – said it was Trump who is standing in the way of immigration reform and trying to create a political issue. They have expressed frustration that the Republican bills were crafted without their input.
GOP House leaders said Thursday that they would delay until next week a vote on a bill that would provide $25 billion for Trump’s long-sought border wall, offer a pathway to citizenship to young undocumented immigrants known as “dreamers” and keep migrant families together in detention centers.
Earlier in the day, the House rejected a hard-line measure that would have significantly limited legal immigration and given dreamers only an uncertain reprieve. Trump had said he supported both bills, frustrating some GOP lawmakers who wanted clearer direction and more vocal leadership from the president.
Rep. Bradley Byrne, R-Ala., a member of the whip team in the House, said Trump could make a difference in passing legislation if he were more emphatic about what he wants.
“If the president said to a given bill, ‘That’s my bill, that’s the one I want,’ I think that would have a pretty significant impact on our discussions,” Byrne said. “But he hasn’t done that yet. and so we’re continuing to work without that.”
Despite the GOP leadership’s vows to fight on, some Republicans were openly skeptical about their ability to achieve success in the wake of Trump’s latest tweets.
“Game over,” Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., said during an interview on CNN. “It takes the wind out of the sails in what might have been a fairly productive week in terms of looking for compromise. I don’t know how it happens, because if you look at how contentious this issue is, how much emotion there is, without the president being out front – without the president having legislators’ backs – there’s no way they’re going to take the risks that would be inherent in a major reform bill.”
GOP aides were more cautious in their assessment. The chances of a bill passing are “not good, and worse with the POTUS tweets,” said one aide who requested anonymity to speak candidly about the sensitive issue. Another said Trump would be to blame if legislation fails.
Friday was the second day in a row that Trump’s tweets served to undermine House GOP efforts. On Thursday, he sent a morning tweet questioning the purpose of passing a Republican-backed bill in the House that Democrats could kill in the Senate, using the chamber’s filibuster rule.
But, as of 4 p.m. Thursday, Trump was still making calls to Capitol Hill and demanding that the House pass a bill. Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., relayed that message to House Republicans, which factored into their decision to continue negotiations on legislation into next week.
The president seemed to counsel a far different course Friday morning, suggesting immigration would be a defining issue in the midterm elections.
“Elect more Republicans in November and we will pass the finest, fairest and most comprehensive Immigration Bills anywhere in the world,” Trump wrote on Twitter on Friday. “Right now we have the dumbest and the worst. Dems are doing nothing but Obstructing. Remember their motto, RESIST! Ours is PRODUCE!”
The Washington Post’s Erica Werner, Sean Sullivan and Felicia Sonmez contributed to this report.