Last week, President Trump spoke about his intention to eliminate birthright citizenship via executive order. It didn’t get a great reception. Trump’s ability to eliminate an established constitutional protection through presidential writ was immediately rejected not just by constitutional experts but by Republican Speaker of the House Paul Ryan as well.
“Well, you obviously cannot do that,” Ryan said in a radio interview one week before Election Day. “You cannot end birthright citizenship with an executive order.”
The president didn’t waste much time throwing his ally of convenience to the wolves. “Paul Ryan should be focusing on holding the Majority rather than giving his opinions on Birthright Citizenship, something he knows nothing about!” Trump tweeted. “Our new Republican Majority will work on this, Closing the Immigration Loopholes and Securing our Border!”
There was much more to this spitting match than an academic dispute over the president’s constitutional authority. The kerfuffle exposed a point of tension between House Republican leaders, who are scrambling to preserve their majority (or at least limit the Democrats’ majority), and the president, who is using immigration as a wedge issue, primarily to keep the Senate and thereby save himself face.
Since the moment he got word that a “caravan” of poor migrants fleeing violence in Central America was heading (very, very gradually) toward the United States border to request asylum, the president’s messaging has been laser focused on a dystopian, racist, and lie-ridden portrayal of immigration horrors to come. He has directed the Defense Department to send troops to the border, as a stunt, and warned that the migrants might throw rocks at the troops. He has tweeted racist ads implying that the so-called caravan is filled with violent criminals and argued (“argued”) that this is what Democrats want. He says, with no evidence, that terrorists have embedded themselves within the caravan, while his henchmen on cable news take the alarmingly racist next step of suggesting the caravan will bring smallpox and leprosy into the country.
There are two compelling explanations for why cranked-up immigration fearmongering is the president’s exclusive closing message. The first, and most obvious, is that it’s the only thing the president knows how to do. He does not know how to persuade undecideds, only how to rile up his base, and conspiratorial shrieking about nonwhite immigrants is the president’s “signature issue.”
But if we’re feeling generous and granting Trump strategic motives, the second explanation is the president is using immigration to ensure he’ll have a branch to hold onto if the blue wave crashes over him.
That branch is the Senate. Recognizing a few weeks ago that the prospects for the House were slim, the president turned his focus almost explicitly to the Senate. Senate Democrats are defending a lot of deep-red turf this year, and ensuring maximal Republican base turnout should be enough to allow Republicans to keep, and quite likely increase, their control of the chamber. The immigration kookery, though, may well be having the opposite effect in House battlegrounds. This explains why Paul Ryan, rarely one to chastise the president in public, would be willing to challenge his birthright-citizenship position just before Election Day. As Politico reported, Ryan called the president on Sunday urging him, per Politico’s paraphrase, to “please, please talk up the booming economy in the final hours before Election Day.” Trump told Ryan he’d prefer sticking to immigration.
Trump’s immigration message has improved Democrats’ positions in various House districts that Republicans felt comfortable in just a few weeks ago, particularly those Texas, Florida, and California districts with significant Hispanic populations.
“His homing in on this message is going to cost us seats,” a senior House GOP campaign source told Politico. “The people we need to win in these swing districts that will determine the majority, it’s not the Trump base; it’s suburban women, or people who voted for [Hillary] Clinton or people who are not hard Trump voters.”
And yet, Trump is knowingly focusing on the Senate at the expense of the House. His inability to persuade, after all, is an extension of his insecurity. He doesn’t want to bother changing the minds of those who don’t like him. He’d rather troll them and focus on making those who already love him love him even more.
Doing whatever he can to maintain or expand the Republican Senate majority, even if it worsens the House outlook, gives Trump his out the day after the election. The White House already has its spin blueprint in place: They will portray Trump as the “savior of Republicans in the Senate” on Wednesday. In reality, Trump will deserve far less credit for this than the lopsidedly target-rich Senate environment for Republicans. But if Republicans hold the Senate, Trump will claim credit for it anyway and use it as the foundation for a typically bad-faith macro argument that the “blue wave” petered out.
And his excuse for Democrats taking the House? It will be Paul Ryan’s fault, obviously.