On Tuesday morning, Axios posted an interview wherein the president made the headline-grabbing announcement that he believes he can end birthright citizenship with an executive order. The claim is questionable: Since birthright citizenship is enshrined in the constitution under the 14th Amendment, a unilateral presidential declaration would only trigger a court case and not settle the matter.
But Trump’s gesture has little to do with policy or legal plausibility. Rather, the push to end birthright citizenship belongs to the realm of political theater, a realm where Trump has shown real mastery. The announcement comes one week ahead of the midterm election and parallels moves by the president to hype the so-called caravan of aspiring asylum seekers heading towards the Mexican-American border. As The New York Times notes, the discussion of birthright citizenship “comes after the administration announced it was streaming more than 5,000 active-duty troops to the southern border, part of an election-season rash of executive action Mr. Trump has undertaken as he works to energize his anti-immigrant base.”
Given the fact that Trump is so obviously hyping an issue to rile up his base, some Democrats are urging that his attention-seeking behavior be ignored. Tommy Vietor of Crooked Media tweeted:
The problem, of course, is that presidential actions, even if obvious stunts likely to be overturned by the courts, are hard to ignore. Even before Trump was elected president he had the ability to dominate media conversation, a problem which is even more difficult to solve now that he occupies the White House.