WASHINGTON — The White House on Monday again answered a chorus of criticism by pivoting to a hard-line immigration policy, even though it could drive away independent voters in key battleground states.
With the commander in chief on his third full day of a 10-day "working vacation" at his New Jersey golf resort, the White House deployed Acting Citizenship and Immigration Services Director Ken Cuccinelli for a rare session with reporters in the James A. Brady Briefing Room — a briefing that came two days after former Trump friend and alleged child sex trafficker Jeffery Epstein was found dead in his New York City jail cell.
Cuccinelli, the former Virginia state attorney general, outlined a new rule that would block an unspecified number of migrants from obtaining green cards if they benefit from certain federal assistance programs.
The federal rule change, which goes into effect Oct. 14, targets migrants he said are deemed a "public charge" or likely to become one, he said. Cuccinelli called it an attempt to maintain the country's value of "self-sufficiency."
"Throughout our history, self-reliance has been a core principle in America, the virtues of perseverance, hard work. Self-sufficiency laid the foundation of our nation and defined generations of immigrants seeking opportunity in the United States," said Cuccinelli.
He said migrants applying for green cards must be able to mirror his own Italian migrant ancestors, whom he said "worked together to ensure they could provide for their own needs — and they never expected the government to do it." Later, while taking questions from reporters, he gave a verbal nod to the toughness of the new rule when he said "a poor person can be prepared to be self-sufficient."
"Many have been through the history of this country," he said a few moments after being asked if the "public charge" change — which Cuccinelli noted was possible because Congress has never defined the term in law and no previous administration did so via regulation — means this inscription on the Statue of Liberty should be taken down: "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore."
His response: "Well, I'm certainly not prepared to take anything down off the Statue of Liberty. ... We have a long history of being one of the most welcoming nations in the world on a number of basises."
Calling the "modern welfare state" too "expensive," he said the rule would apply to around 400,000 people a year who will be subjected to a "meaningful analysis" of "whether they're likely to become a public charge."
Top Democratic lawmakers have been anticipating the change, with House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler saying during a July 16 hearing it is "clearly unlawful and morally repugnant. If finalized as proposed, there is no doubt that this rule will make immigration adjudications infinitely more complex."
Nadler said backlogs at the Citizenship and Immigration Services office "nearly doubled from 367,000 in late 2015 to about 740,000 in September 2018."
Analysts say the new rule will likely slow immigration rates, including family-based migration that Trump and hard-line conservative aides like White House senior policy adviser Stephen Miller long have tried to end or drastically reduce. Under a federal visa program, green card holders and legal residents can petition federal officials to allow family members to join them inside the United States. Trump often uses the issue, using a term experts dispute, to rev up his supporters during campaign rallies.
"How about chain migration? How about that? Somebody comes in, he brings his mother, and his father, and his aunt and uncle, 15 times removed. He brings them all," Trump said last August at an Ohio rally.
The president is expected to bring up the "public charge" rule Thursday night at a campaign rally in Manchester, N.H. The state has only four Electoral College votes, but Trump's campaign team believes could be in play next November. (Trump lost the state in 2016 by one-third of a percentage point to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.)
Trump spent much of the week attacking political foes even during his two-city stop in the wake of the latest deadly shootings under his tenure. Democratic lawmakers and that party's presidential candidates have directly worked to link him to white supremacist groups and again said he is unfit for the highest office in the land.
Anthony Scaramucci, a former White House Communications director, told CNN Monday morning he thinks last week was the "worst" of Trump's presidency. While also pulling his support for a second Trump term, Scaramucci criticized the president's racist rhetoric and how he and White House aides handled visits to Dayton, Ohio, and El Paso, Texas, following mass shootings in both cities left 31 dead.
After a weekend Twitter feud with the president that amounted to the end of their longtime alliance, Scaramucci said GOP officials should begin preparing a backup plan for who could become the party's 2020 presidential nominee if Trump has more weeks like the last.
Enter the pivot, once again while under political pressure, to the issue that likely resonates most with his conservative base, immigration. The president already is running a reelection campaign heavy on rhetoric warning his conservative, and overwhelmingly white, base that migrants — especially ones in the United States illegally — constitute an economic and moral threat.
Trump has recently referred to a migrant "invasion" — a word the suspected El Paso shooter echoed in an online manifesto — and again called those seeking to enter the U.S. from Central and South America "animals" who will automatically bring crime. But the White House regularly trots out an immigration announcement in times of trouble because the president's base is energized by the issue.
For instance, a late-July Quinnipiac University poll found that less than half (49%) of surveyed Republicans believe "immigration is good for the country." Political strategists see the president and his team exclusively appealing to the conservative base as they shift into reelection mode, and doing very little to attract independent voters that could be key in the six or seven states that likely will decide the Electoral College.
That's where the hard-line immigration policies could backfire on Trump. The same Quinnipiac survey found 75% of independents see immigration as a net "good" for the country.
As Trump signals a bid for a second term based largely on racial and socioeconomic themes that Democrats say is meant to "divide" the country, left-leaning groups panned the rule change in a preview of Democratic candidates' expected condemnations.
"Just a week after a terrorist attack in which a white supremacist killed 22 people in El Paso and specifically targeted the Latino community, the Trump administration has launched its most radical attempt yet to harm immigrant families and further its anti-immigrant agenda," said Philip Wolgin, immigration policy managing director at the Center for American Progress. "This rule prioritizes money over family and tells immigrants that if they want to achieve the 'American dream,' they'd better do it before they get here."