Published 10:04 PM EDT Oct 22, 2018
HOUSTON – President Donald Trump on Monday vowed to send as many troops as necessary to the U.S.-Mexican border to block a growing caravan of Central American migrants, calling their trek “an assault on our country.”
In an exclusive interview with USA TODAY aboard Air Force One, the president said there were “people from the Middle East” in their ranks, reiterating a claim he made without evidence in a morning tweet. The president declined to say whether his assertion was based on intelligence agencies or some other source.
While Trump has made unsubstantiated charges that Democrats had funded the migrants, he said the television footage that showed them straggling north was rebounding to the political benefit of Republicans in the midterms. The caravan could be seen on a TV, tuned to Fox News, on the wall of his office aboard the presidential aircraft.
“I think this could be a blessing in disguise because it shows how bad our laws are,” he said. “The Democrats are responsible for that.”
That was akin to the unexpected political repercussions of the bitter Senate confirmation hearings for Brett Kavanaugh, now a Supreme Court justice. The controversy helped energize GOP voters in advance of the Nov. 6 elections, he said.
How many troops was he prepared to send to the border?
“As many as necessary,” he replied.
Trump has pummeled Democrats for weeks on immigration, harping on a proposal raised by some in the liberal wing of the party to abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Though the idea is unlikely to ever become law, Trump has used it to paint Democrats as soft on crime and border security.
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The president has also repeatedly used the caravan of Central American immigrants making its way to the United States as a political issue, at one point framing the election as hanging on the outcome of the migrants' journey. He has threatened to seal the border with Mexico and reduce foreign aid to Central America.
Despite the threats from the White House, the caravan has grown and there are reports that the number of families crossing the border has swelled after the White House backed down from parts of a stricter enforcement policy that forced the separation of thousands of immigrant families this year.
Trump made immigration a central issue of the 2016 campaign and polls show it still resonates, especially with Republican voters, with only weeks to go before the midterms. A CNN poll last week of voters in Texas, where Trump was holding a rally Monday evening, found that immigration was virtually tied with the economy as the top issue in the state's Senate contest.
Trump continued to press on the issue during the rally in Texas, blaming "activist judges" for blocking his plan to end the practice of releasing immigrants apprehended at the border into the U.S., which critics call "catch and release." It was Trump himself who reversed part of the administration's "zero tolerance" policy following criticism that it caused a spike in family separations.
Underscoring the political salience of the issue for Republican midterm voters, the president used more direct language Monday to claim that Democrats had "something to do with" the caravan, which he repeatedly described as "an assault" on the country. Trump has not offered evidence to support the idea that Democrats are behind the caravan.
"In that caravan you have some very bad people and we can’t let that happen to our country," Trump said.