Politics

New York Visit Drops Trump Into Contested GOP Primary

Long Island event provides president with chance to talk MS-13 again

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents serve an employment audit notice at a 7-Eleven convenience store Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2018, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)

Flanked by a trio of Republican congressmen, President Donald Trump ventured to his native New York on Wednesday to accuse Democrats of coddling violent gangs and being soft on immigration and provided one of the members with a photo-op as he fends off a tough primary foe. 

One week after a White House event led to an extensive back and forth of the president's use of the term “animals” to describe, depending on whom was interpreting, MS-13 gang members or undocumented immigrants writ large, the trio of New York House Republicans — Peter T. King, Dan Donovan, and Lee Zeldin — showed no reluctance to being seen with Trump as they participated in the Bethpage, N.Y., roundtable.

Donovan is in a tough primary match-up with former New York GOP Rep. Michael Grimm, who has made his fealty to Trump a campaign talking point and did not appear too happy Donovan was invited to the event, which is outside the boundaries of the Staten Island-based 11th the two men are fighting over. 

Grimm, a former FBI agent and a former tax felon, criticized his 11th District primary foe, Rep. Dan Donovan, for his alleged “shameless opportunism and outright lies are as transparent as they are disastrous for our country.

“After protecting sanctuary city policies and supporting blanket amnesty for over 10 million illegal immigrants, Donovan now once again uses his office for personal gain, turning a critical homeland security issue like MS-13 into yet another campaign stunt,” Grimm said in a statement.

Meanwhile, as the event started, the White House blasted out an email. “MS-13 IS A THREAT TO AMERICAN COMMUNITIES,” it said in bold.

King lamented the “evil of MS-13,” and thanked Trump for his efforts to weaken the gang, which has a strong presence in New York. Zeldin accused Democrats of “obstructionism,” saying they refuse to work with Trump and Republicans on immigration issues over worries about legitimizing his presidency.

“We have the biggest loopholes,” Trump said at the Long Island event. He claimed Democratic lawmakers have “refused to close these loopholes,” even though he and Republicans have over the years helped sink bipartisan immigration overhaul measures. 

Trump slammed House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and other Democrats for panning his remark and saying he was referring to all immigrants. “I called them animals the other day and I was met with rebuke. They said, ‘They are people.’ They’re not people. These are animals. And we have to be very, very tough,” he said of MS-13 members.

His repeated attempts to turn his remark back on Democrats is a signal the matter could become a theme in November’s midterm elections.

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The invited guests applauded as he delivered the line. Top White House aides have spent the last seven days doubling down on the remark, saying their boss was only referring to MS-13 members. Wednesday brought a new colorful remark, with the president calling parts of New York an “occupied territory,” where MS-13 is strongest and children are afraid to play outside.

The president also threatened to slash or completely cut off U.S. aid to countries from which undocumented immigrants come who enter the United States. He did not say, however, how he planned to convince pro-foreign aid appropriators from writing legislation that would provide such monies.

Embattled Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein urged Congress to work with the administration to shutter some of the loopholes, saying, among other alleged hindrances, those legal shortcomings prevent law enforcement entities from removing undocumented MS-13 members fast enough.

Trump voiced his agreement — providing some palace intrigue amid tensions between the two men over the Justice Department’s Russia probe — and then said he thinks Democratic members increasingly want to do what Rosenstein asked.

Administration officials, including embattled Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and Rosenstein, mostly focused on what the administration already has done to fight MS-13. A few mentioned stiff penalties handed out to convicted members of the gang for crimes or lauded deportation numbers since Trump took office. (Amid talk about her ouster, Trump said he thinks Nielsen is doing a “great job,” saying the top DHS post is “not easy.“)

The Republican lawmakers participated just weeks before the House is expected to address a broad immigration bill by the middle of next month. If that happens, it will mark the first time since the GOP took control of the chamber eight years ago that it has taken up such legislation.

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Republicans have been, so far, unable to adequately address granting amnesty to young undocumented immigrants and protecting those covered under DACA. Then there are the White House’s demands for at least a hefty chunk of funding for the president’s proposed U.S.-Mexico border wall and other border security measures.

In January, Trump told a bipartisan group of lawmakers he would sign any compromise measure they came up with. But just a few months later, after his aides put out a hardline list of demands, he helped sink legislation Senate Republicans and Democrats crafted.

Fast forward a few months and the White House has yet to seriously weigh in on what the House is expected to take up. Trump’s aides have merely said any bill must meet his four main priorities: addressing DACA, funding his proposed border wall, enhancing border security and closing the “loopholes” in existing laws.

But a growing list of House Republicans is growing restless over the list of unresolved immigration issues with the midterm elections just six months away.

A so-called “discharge petition” that would allow an immigration measure to move under special floor rules now has 21 Republicans and a total of 204 signatures after Rep. Erik Paulsen, R-Minn., signed on Wednesday. More signatures could come during House vote series later in the day. Only 14 more signatures are needed to get to the 218 threshold that would allow any of the petition signers to call the rule up for a vote on June 25. If all 193 Democrats sign on only four more Republican signatures are needed.

“President Trump and leaders in Congress promised to fix DACA. They haven’t,” Paulsen said in a statement. “I took action to solve this problem and there’s bipartisan support to do so.”

Lindsey McPherson contributed to this article.Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.