Published 9:14 PM EDT Oct 18, 2018
WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump said Thursday that Democrats "wanted" the caravan of immigrants making its way to the U.S., the latest example of the president putting immigration at the center of next month's election.
“They wanted that caravan,” Trump said of Democrats during a rally in Montana. “It's going to be an election of the caravan."
Trump is ramping up his rhetoric on immigration as he begins a three-day campaign swing of western states where border security has become a top issue in the upcoming election.
As another caravan of Central American immigrants wound its way north to Mexico, Trump threatened Thursday to close the southern U.S. border – shutting off access to one of the nation’s largest trading partners – if Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto did not stop the travelers.
"I'm willing to send the military to defend our southern border if necessary, all because of the illegal immigration onslaught brought by the Democrats," Trump said.
Trump’s remarks – which are likely to fire up the Republican base of the party – come as the president is increasingly focused on next month’s election, with campaign rallies scheduled in Montana, Arizona, Nevada and Texas over the course of the next several days.
In a series of Twitter posts Thursday, Trump also threatened to withhold aid payment to central American countries and he made a pointed demand to Mexico to stop the "onslaught" of the undocumented immigrants.
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Polls show immigration, a central theme of Trump’s 2016 presidential election, is still resonating with voters, particularly in the GOP.
A CBS News/YouGov poll this month found 61 percent of registered Arizona voters described illegal immigration as a “big problem,” with 9 percent viewing it as not a problem. An NBC News/Marist poll pegged immigration as the third-most important issue among likely voters in Nevada, behind the economy and health care.
After speaking in Montana for GOP Senate hopeful Matt Rosendale, Trump will campaign for Rep. Martha McSally in Arizona on Friday, incumbent Nevada Sen. Dean Heller on Saturday and incumbent Texas Sen. Ted Cruz on Monday. All four have made immigration a part of their campaign.
Trump supporters, gathered for the president's rally in Montana on Thursday, stressed the importance of the issue.
Kinda Martin, 79, who arrived at Trump's rally in Montana hours before Air Force One touched down in the state, was hoping the president would discuss immigration.
“I think he’s about the best hope we have right now,” she said of Trump.
Martin said she believed Trump had made some progress on the issue, "but not nearly enough.” Martin said the blame rested at least partly with Congress, where Republicans have a margin so slim in the Senate that Democrats can block most bills.
Trump frequently makes the same point at his rallies.
Windee Rigler of Corvallis, Montana, framed the immigration debate in economic terms.
“It’s part of our jobs issue,” she said.
Immigrant advocates say campaigning on the issue, driven by Trump, is growing more intense.
“We’re well beyond campaign rhetoric,” said Ali Noorani, executive director of the pro-immigrant National Immigration Forum. “What the president has managed to do over the years is make immigration a very toxic proxy for the economy.”
Trump has made immigration a central political theme for years. At every campaign rally this year the president has mentioned his proposed border wall with Mexico and has lamented the violence carried about the Central American-based gang MS-13. He has also framed Democrats as the “party of crime,” citing proposals such as the elimination of Immigration and Customs Enforcement that have originated from the liberal wing of the party.
But the issue has taken on added significance both on the trail and within the White House in recent weeks.
White House officials on Thursday tried to push back on a story, first reported by Bloomberg, that Chief of Staff John Kelly and the national security advisor, John Bolton, got into a shouting match outside the Oval Office over immigration. Some within the White House have criticized Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, a Kelly ally, for not doing more to secure the U.S. border with Mexico.
“While we are passionate about solving the issue of illegal immigration, we are not angry at one another,” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said in a statement Thursday. “However, we are furious at the failure of Congressional Democrats to help us address this growing crisis.”
Contributing: Christal Hayes