Donald Trump has relaunched a presidential campaign that never really ever landed. (Remember, the president filed to run for reelection the same day he was inaugurated.) Speaking for 80 minutes at an Orlando, Florida, rally on Tuesday, Trump again replayed 2016’s greatest hits. He ranted about Hillary Clinton’s emails: “Can you imagine if I got a subpoena for emails?” he asked, falsely claiming that the former secretary of state had “acid washed” her servers. “If I deleted one email, like a love note to Melania, it’s the electric chair for Trump.” He called the Mueller investigation an “illegal attempt to overturn the results of the election, spy on our campaign, which is what they did, and subvert our democracy.” And he warned that the Democrats would “flood the country” with dangerous undocumented immigrants if they won the next election. “The Democrat agenda of open borders is morally reprehensible. It’s the greatest betrayal of the American middle class and, frankly, American life,” said Trump, as the crowd chanted “build the wall.”
Despite the braying and bravado, however, Trump is perhaps in the worst position of any incumbent president in recent history. His poll numbers are so bleak he refuses to acknowledge them, going so far as to fire pollsters who had the temerity to show the president consistently losing to his potential Democratic rivals. He is trailing in a number of key electoral states, including Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. He is on the verge of dragging the United States into war with Iran, and his other high-profile diplomatic gambits have failed. His luck with the economy could run out any moment, due either to the vicissitudes of economic cycles or the trade wars he has tried to gin up. Even if House Democrats don’t officially start an impeachment inquiry, the investigations they conduct could drive presidential poll numbers into the earth’s core.
But when the walls close in, you can always count on President Trump to do what any man in his position (his position being a rageful and insecure manchild) would: Turn again to racist fearmongering. On Monday, in a teaser for his campaign rally, the president tweeted that he was ordering an unprecedented roundup of undocumented immigrants.
A plan to speed the removal of thousands of immigrants, known as the “rocket docket,” has existed for months, according to The Washington Post. It would involve a government “blitz operation” that would round up “thousands of migrant parents and children” whose deportation orders were expedited earlier this year. The operation was considered so extreme that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) director Ronald Vitiello and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen—neither exactly a friend of the huddled masses yearning to breathe free—objected, and were pushed out of the administration by Trump and his vampiric senior adviser Stephen Miller.
Trump is almost certainly being hyperbolic. Deportation operations are not typically announced in advance. At their peak—under President Obama in fiscal year 2012—deportation orders capped out at around 400,000. ICE has slowed deportations in 2019 in part because, as NBC’s Julia Ainsley reported, the agency “is running out of space due to the influx of immigrants coming across the border.” Human Rights First, meanwhile, told Reuters that the idea that Guatemala could protect migrants was “simply ludicrous.”
Subsequent reporting suggested that a large-scale operation was “not imminent,” which is not surprising given that the president theoretically tipped the whole thing off. To an extent, this was a typical Trump bluff: A grandiose claim, appearing to take hostages in an attempt to pressure Democrats in Congress. Trump tried something similar when he unilaterally threatened to apply tariffs on automobiles coming from Mexico, provoking an outcry from Senate Republicans and conservative business groups in the process.
At the same time, this is assuredly intended as red meat for the base. Trump was first elected in part for his willingness to embrace draconian anti-immigrant policies; always hungry for the adulation of his xenophobic superfans, he’s now increasingly desperate for their 2020 votes, as well. The president has managed to rip thousands of migrant children from their parents, and has forced over 10,000 asylum seekers back to Mexico just this year, but he has failed on his big-ticket item, the construction of a wall on the United States’ southern border. That wall is not going to get built between now and November 2020, a reality that will likely push Trump to make more reckless and racist claims like those made Monday and Tuesday.
In keeping with this strategy, the administration announced Monday it would “permanently” end foreign aid to El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, the “Northern Triangle” from which many migrants and asylum seekers originate. That, of course, will only exacerbate the deplorable conditions in those countries and force more people to make the dangerous journey north. The influx of migrants will then lead the administration to declare the need for even more cruel and heavy-handed policies—which will, in turn, likely lead to a further deterioration of the situation at the border.
Regardless of whether or not ICE embarks on the plans outlined in the “rocket docket” next week, Trump’s strategy heading into a difficult election season is clear. He will use the presidency to demonize migrants and further destabilize Central American countries, without any clear policy objective in mind. Instead, the objective is proving to his supporters that he is using the presidency to punish undocumented immigrants. To promote a “kick-off” rally, the president announced that ICE was going to round up “millions”—imagine what he’ll do as election day draws increasingly near.