The crowd Donald Trump addressed Wednesday didn’t chant “build the wall!” And the president didn’t mention the border barrier idea that helped him get elected. Nor did he talk of Latino gangs, immigrant “rapists” and mass deportations.
Trump appeared something of a fish out of water as he stood at the familiar presidential podium before a backdrop featuring the logo of The Latino Coalition. After all, as a presidential candidate Trump railed against Latin American countries for sending drug pushers and “criminals” to the United States.
“We got tough,” Trump boasted less than two weeks ago of his administration’s immigration enforcement actions, facing a mostly white audience of supporters at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference.
“Reducing violent crime in America is a top priority for my administration, and we will do whatever it takes to get it done,” Trump said that day. “And we’re working to get violent offenders off our streets and behind bars, and get them behind bars quickly, for a long time, or get them the hell out of our country.”
The crowd roared at Trump’s implication that immigration spawns violence and crime.
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But the tough-talking president didn’t make the four-minute drive Wednesday to the swanky JW Marriott hotel to deliver the same message to a group of Latino business honchos. Instead, the genial Trump wasted little time buttering up the crowd with platitudes before arguing his agenda will help Latino small businesses, workers and neighborhoods.
“I’m thrilled to be here with so many of our incredible leaders in the Latino business community. And you folks are good business people,” said Trump, in the charmer-in-chief mode he typically reserves for other world leaders and some corporate titans.
“I know that. I know that for a fact,” he said with a smile. “I’ve had to compete against you for a long time. In fact, I said, ‘I want to get out of that. I want to be president. It's easier.’”
The crowd didn’t roar like the one at CPAC, but Trump got the ice-breaking chuckle he wanted from a group with ample reasons to be skeptical of his presidency. And he wasn’t finished with the charm offensive.
“The Latino community embodies the pioneering spirit of America, he said. “As president I am committed to unleashing the full potential of the Latino community by removing government burdens, by restoring safety and security to our neighborhoods, and by defending America’s interests so that all of our citizens can prosper.”
Still, Trump’s long record of harsh comments about Latino immigrants was hanging over his Wednesday appearance. Latino Coalition Chairman Hector Barreto used his introduction of the president to call the United States the country many Latinos “love” and “work for” and “die for.”
He also urged the business leaders in the room to resist a likely urge to avoid trying to work with the Trump administration, noting his father once told him the Latino community is “too important to be out ... of influence.”
Barreto praised the president for the GOP tax cut law, saying his “contribution to creating a healthy small business environment is something our community welcomes.”
But shortly before Trump’s remarks, Rep. Luis V. Gutiérrez delivered a much different message on the House floor.
Trump’s “approach to immigration is pretty simple: If you are white, you’re alright. If you are brown, you are lower down. And if you are black, just go back,” the Illinois Democrat said.
“As we all know by now, Trump prefers immigrants from ‘snowhole countries’ like Norway,” he added. “Yep, you take a look at the Winter Olympics leaderboard of the countries that won medals, and that is a pretty good list of who Trump wants to have here. Norway, check. Canada, check. Netherlands? OK. But we better add Russia.”
Trump offered no criticism of Latino immigrants on Wednesday, instead saving his critical words for Senate Democrats. He accused them of holding up everything from his executive branch nominations to an immigration deal in which his audience has a major stake to infrastructure legislation that could create jobs for Latino workers.
The president said Democrats were doing a “terrible thing.” But he did not extend an olive branch or signal how he would compromise on those issues.
He called out Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer by name, urging him and his caucus to “get going.” Democrats often counter that many nominees are unqualified and the White House is not seriously engaged in legislative talks on major issues.
Trump touted his infrastructure plan, which has no details, and blamed Democrats for raising questions about it, because “we’ve had too many wins.”
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On immigration, the GOP president accused Democrats of “filibustering” his overhaul plan — neglecting to mention his White House lobbied heavily against a bipartisan Senate immigration bill.
Gutiérrez accused Trump of “blocking any kind of immigration legislation because he will only agree to, say, protect Dreamers from deportation if he can eliminate whole categories of legal immigration,” particularly “programs that are filled with people who want to come to the United States legally from Asia, Africa and Latin America.”
A short time later, the president charged Gutiérrez’s party of being “nowhere to be found” on finding a permanent solution for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which protects nearly 700,000 undocumented people from deportation, after the president’s own decision to terminate it.
“We’re ready, willing and able,” he said of Republicans’ desire to strike a DACA deal. “Go get DACA. Go push those Democrats,” he told the lunch-hour audience.
But Republicans are also MIA on the matter.
Talks on the Obama-era program had been married with other immigration issues, with the No. 2 Republican and Democratic leaders from each chamber leading negotiations toward a deal.
On Tuesday, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer said the No. 2 congressional leaders have not met since the Senate failed to pass a bill last month.
And yet the president looked out at the Latino audience and claimed his “America first” governing philosophy is “about unity,” adding, “it’s about coming together as ... one big, beautiful American family — no matter our race, or color, or creed.”
Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.