Speaking at a tax reform roundtable in West Virginia, President Trump literally threw away his prepared remarks to launch into an attack on “weak” immigration laws and “incompetently drawn” trade deals that allow Americans to be “taken advantage of.”
“It would have taken about two minutes, but what the hell,” Trump said after tossing a piece of paper as the crowd laughed. “That would have been a little boring. Little boring. No, I'm reading off the first paragraph and I said, ‘This is boring. Come on.’”
Flanked by two Republican Senate candidates, Trump is busy campaigning to preserve and even expand the GOP majorities on Capitol Hill. “We have to get Republicans in office,” he said. But he has increasingly been discarding the traditional Republican script to emphasize his own populist themes.
Trump was in West Virginia, a state he carried by more than 40 points and where Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., is up for re-election this fall, to tout the Republican-passed tax cut he signed into law late last year.
“You know, they used to call it tax reform, and for 40 years they couldn't pass anything and they didn't know why,” he said, adding he suggested his Republican colleagues call the bill “tax cuts” instead.
But Trump spent at least as much time railing against “chain migration,” sanctuary cities, the diversity visa lottery, and “catch and release” as he revisited the immigration rhetoric he used when he launched his presidential campaign in 2015.
“Everybody said, ‘Oh, he was so tough,' and I used the word ‘rape,’” Trump said. “ And yesterday, it came out where, this journey coming up, women are raped at levels that nobody has ever seen before. They don't want to mention that.”
Since it was reported that a “caravan” of undocumented immigrants from Central America was approaching the U.S., Trump has excoriated the Democrats’ approach to immigration, distanced himself from a deal on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, and signed a proclamation dispatching the National Guard to the border.
“We have no idea who they are, what they do, where they came from. We have no idea what their records are,” Trump said. “We don’t know if they're murderers, if they're killers, if they're MS-13. We're throwing them out by the hundreds.”
The president added MS-13 was no match for Immigration and Customs Enforcement. “And these ICE guys are so much tougher than them, and they're grabbing them by the necks and throwing them into the paddy wagons,” Trump said. “And the town — the people are clapping and screaming. Their town has been liberated. It's like it's a war. It's like, literally, it's a war, where your town or your city or your country has been liberated.”
“I simply think he is taking advantage of the opportunity afforded him by organizers of the caravan,” said former Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., once the leading immigration hawk in Congress. “Probably one of the dumbest PR stunts I have ever heard of but definitely provides us with an opportunity to drive home the message regarding secure borders.”
Later Thursday Trump announced he had “instructed the [U.S. trade representative] to consider whether $100 billion of additional tariffs would be appropriate under section 301 and, if so, to identify the products upon which to impose such tariffs.”
These tariff hikes drew an immediate rebuke from Republican free traders. “China is guilty of many things, but the President has no actual plan to win right now,” Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., said in a statement. “He’s threatening to light American agriculture on fire. Let’s absolutely take on Chinese bad behavior, but with a plan that punishes them instead of us. This is the dumbest possible way to do this.”
In picking these fights, Trump is rallying his base, some of whom had become disillusioned with his more conventionally Republican first year in office and the compromise he floated on DACA.
“We are calling on Trump to pick up his phone and order the Border Patrol to end his catch and release policies he's continuing from the Bush and Obama administrations and then call the Pentagon to order an immediate deployment of U.S. forces to stop that caravan and other illegals as Article 4 of the U.S. Constitution requires,” said William Gheen of Americans for Legal Immigration PAC.
Some Republicans nevertheless worry that Trump’s trade policies will wipe out the economic gains from tax cuts and deregulation while his rhetoric will alienate voters in the suburban districts the party needs to hold to retain its House majority.
“This won’t help the candidates I work for,” said a GOP strategist speaking on condition of anonymity.
Trump remains undeterred. “We have some people that really, they love this country more than anything and they see now it's on the right track,” he told the adoring West Virginia crowd. "And it's going to get better and better.”