President Trump is ratcheting up his attacks on immigration — making and then rescinding a threat to close the nation’s southern border in response to a problem that has worsened on his watch. He’s reviving his assault on the Affordable Care Act — frustrated by a Democratic law that has only grown more popular since his inauguration. And he is escalating his complaints about unfair trade practices — even while presiding over a ballooning trade deficit he promised to eliminate.
These key themes from Trump’s 2016 victory are emerging again as the pillars of his 2020 campaign, centered on a foreboding, populist message about the perils of lax immigration policies, socialist health-care plans and foreign economic threats. He has returned to similar subjects repeatedly throughout his presidency, helping him hold onto a strong base of Republican support.
But Trump’s dark warnings pose a central conundrum for his reelection effort: Can he win the White House a second time by railing against the very problems he promised to fix?
Trump allies are betting the strategy will work again by bolstering enthusiasm among his most avid supporters, particularly older white voters in the upper Midwest who clinched his victory the last time. But the approach also risks alienating moderate suburban voters, including those who took a chance on Trump’s candidacy in hopes that his dealmaker persona would overcome Washington gridlock.
“The bet that they’re making is still the same one — that this is going to be a base election, not an election on persuasion, and so he’s hitting his key issues,” said Doug Heye, a former spokesman for the Republican House leadership and the Republican National Committee. “The challenge they face is it was, and will be, a very fine needle to thread. There’s not much margin for error.”
Kayleigh McEnany, a Trump campaign spokeswoman, said the president has a wide range of accomplishments to press in his case for reelection, a pitch she expects both Trump and the campaign to make.
“President Trump has delivered and will continue to on the issues of health care, border security, and trade,” she said. “To suggest otherwise is to deny the facts. We will be running on the president’s successes on these issues and a myriad of others.”
Several recent reversals on those issues illustrate the difficulty Trump could face over the next 19 months as he attempts to bridge the gap between his fiery rhetoric and more complicated reality.
Late last month, for example, Trump overruled several top advisers when he directed the Justice Department to sign onto a lawsuit aimed at throwing out the health-care law known as Obamacare, declaring that Republicans would write their own replacement.
“We’ll have a plan that is far better than Obamacare,” Trump vowed at the time, adding that Republicans would “soon be known as the party of health care.”
Republican leaders reacted with alarm, fearing that health care would be a political loser for them, especially with a Democratic-run House able to block any GOP proposal. After a week, Trump relented, punting any real action on health care until 2021.
The president also backed off his threat to shut down the border with Mexico, the latest of his many proposed schemes to stem the flow of tens of thousands of Central American migrants entering the United States each month.
Six days after tweeting he would be closing the border “next week” if Mexico did not “immediately stop ALL illegal immigration coming into the United States,” Trump announced Thursday that he was instead giving Mexico a “one-year warning” before taking action.
The climb-down came after Republican leaders and business executives warned him that shutting down the border would be catastrophic for the economy.
Tim Murtaugh, communications director for the campaign, criticized “the constant moving of the goal posts” by Democrats in areas where the president has made progress that exceeds what his predecessors accomplished.
“First the opponents, say, ‘That’s something you can’t do,’ and then the opponents say, ‘You shouldn’t have done that,’ ” Murtaugh said. “Then you achieve success and they say, ‘Well, it’s not good enough.’ ”
Trump’s campaign is conducting a broad messaging survey to help guide its efforts, according to three people familiar with the plan, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal operations. In addition to trade, health care and immigration, officials said, the campaign is likely to focus on economic growth, criminal justice reform and the president’s support for Israel.
Campaign advisers say they have come to trust Trump’s political instincts, though they also recognize that he sometimes goes too far. Still, they say, they can only control what they can — and that often does not include the president.
Trump allies also point to the president’s unlikely victory over more polished politicians in the 2016 Republican primary and his electoral college win against Hillary Clinton as evidence of his political acumen.
“Voters love disruption just like consumers love disruption,” said Bryan Lanza, an adviser to Trump’s 2016 campaign and transition. “They actually see him as a disrupter in a broken system that hasn’t produced results for the better part of 30 years.”
Yet some advisers have pushed Trump to focus more on a message of economic success. The president, for example, visited a General Dynamics tank plant in Lima, Ohio, recently to talk about job growth in the state. But aides and outside advisers were frustrated when he spent a portion of his speech attacking the late senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), an angry screed that dominated headlines out of the event.
Still, Heye said Trump’s twin reversals on health care and immigration show his ability to drive enthusiasm in his political base while bowing to the reality of governing.
“What we also see quite often with Trump is talk that he’s going to do something that he doesn’t ultimately follow through on,” Heye said. “But the base still gives him credit for starting that conversation.”
On immigration, however, there are signs that some of Trump’s most ardent supporters are becoming disenchanted with the president’s failure to improve the worsening situation at the border after more than two years in office. The Department of Homeland Security said last month it was on track to apprehend 100,000 migrants at the border in March — the highest monthly total in a decade.
Fox Business host Lou Dobbs, a close Trump ally, said recently that the president has kept his 2016 campaign promises “except when it comes to illegal immigration” and border security.
“That is a horrible, worsening vulnerability for this president,” Dobbs said. “A glaring electoral burden facing 2020.”
The campaign rejected the notion that Trump is not serious about working to solve the nation’s immigration woes. The president declared a national emergency at the nation’s southern border and issued the first veto of his presidency when Congress passed legislation to overturn that declaration. He has instructed the State Department to cut off aid to three Central American countries that are the source of many migrants, though many experts believe that could make the situation worse. And, the campaign argues, Mexico has begun cracking down on caravans of migrants passing through in response to the threats from the president.
“I don’t think anyone should ever doubt the president’s sincerity when talking about fixing the immigration system,” Murtaugh said.
The growing field of Democrats campaigning to make Trump a one-term president sees his hard-line immigration views as out of line with moderate voters. Several have highlighted Trump’s family separation policy and accused him of racism.
“If we don’t call out racism, certainly at the highest levels of power, in this position of trust that the president enjoys, then we are going to continue to get its consequences,” Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke told reporters last week after an Iowa town hall meeting in which he compared Trump’s rhetoric to Nazi Germany.
Seeking to highlight his record on immigration, Trump traveled to the border Friday for the third time this year and declared that “the country is full.” The area he toured includes a barrier with a plaque labeling it as “President Trump’s Border Wall,” though in fact it is long-planned replacement fencing.
Trump’s threat to close the border was made in the tradition of leaders who seek to stir up populist emotions in the electorate without thinking through the consequences of their proposals, said Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a New York University professor who studies authoritarian rulers.
“Trump will do whatever makes him more popular with his base, and he doesn’t seem to care what the feasibility of it is as long as it resonates, for the moment, with his base,” she said.
Trump’s campaign has directed much of its energy to highlighting shifts to the left among Democrats and to touting the president’s accomplishments. The president himself often boasts about the strong U.S. economy, tax cuts and deregulation under his watch.
“THE REPUBLICAN PARTY IS THE PARTY OF THE AMERICAN DREAM!” Trump tweeted on Thursday.
Trump is also hoping to add trade success to his list of accomplishments, with plans to work out a potential trade agreement with China in coming weeks.
The president did succeed in negotiating an update to the North American Free Trade Agreement, though its ratification is in doubt after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said the deal needs to be reworked. Trump has also threatened to blow up part of the agreement by adding new car tariffs if Mexico does not prevent Central American migrants from coming to the United States.
“This is more important to me than the USMCA,” Trump said Thursday, using an acronym for the updated trade deal.
Trump’s use of tariffs has done little to improve the U.S. trade deficit in goods, which reached a record high $891.2 billion in 2018, according to the Commerce Department. After campaigning in 2016 on a promise to fix bad trade deals and bring down the trade deficit, Trump is gearing up for reelection with much the same message.
Some allies see wisdom in Trump opting to campaign on the same issues he promised to fix in 2016, pointing to the large, enthusiastic crowds that the president continues to draw with his “America First” message.
“It’s the greatest show on earth,” Lanza said. “Why would it be any different?”