By early afternoon on Tuesday, Donald Trump’s latest piece of political chicanery, Operation Midterms Diversion, could be considered a partial success. After a week in which the media narrative was focused on pipe bombs, an alleged bomber who just happened to be an ardent supporter of Trump, and a racist massacre in a Pittsburgh synagogue, two of the three cable news channels—Fox and MSNBC—had reverted to subjects more to Trump’s liking: immigration, the southern border, and the allotment of U.S. citizenship.
CNN, to its credit, was resisting the President’s effort to dictate the news agenda and stayed focused on Pittsburgh, where the funerals of some of the victims of Saturday’s dreadful mass shooting were taking place, as the city was bracing for a visit from the President and his wife, Melania. The home pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post were both leading with the Pittsburgh story, too. But they were also featuring prominently Trump’s pledge, in an interview with the news site Axios, to abolish the right to U.S. citizenship for children born in the United States to parents who aren’t citizens.
It was no accident at all that this announcement was made just a week before the midterm elections. “We’re the only country in the world where a person comes in and has a baby, and the baby is essentially a citizen of the United States for eighty-five years with all of those benefits,” Trump told reporters from Axios. “It’s ridiculous. It’s ridiculous. And it has to end.”
The first part of this statement was a Trump truth—that is, a blatant falsehood. Many other countries, including Canada, Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico, have birthright-citizenship laws. The second half of Trump’s quote was merely a restatement of something he said to Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly in August, 2015, shortly after he launched his Presidential campaign, when he invoked the derogatory term “anchor babies” and added, “Our country is going to hell.”
The supposed news in the Axios story was that Trump also declared his intention to sign an executive order ending birthright citizenship, an option that most legal experts regard as a nonstarter because it would almost certainly violate the 14th Amendment, which states: “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States.” Even Paul Ryan, the Republican Speaker of the House, poured cold water on Trump’s idea of issuing an executive order. “You obviously cannot do that,” he told a Kentucky radio station. “I’m a believer in following the plain text of the Constitution, and I think, in this case, the 14th Amendment is pretty clear, and that would involve a very, very lengthy constitutional process.” The floating of an executive order was a blatant election stunt on Trump’s part, the second in twenty-four hours. On Monday, he announced he was sending more than five thousand active-duty troops to the southernmost reaches of Arizona and California, supposedly to protect the border with Mexico from a so-called “invasion” by Central American migrants. “This is an invasion of our Country and our Military is waiting for you!” Trump wrote in a Monday morning tweet heralding the troop movements.
Of course, there is no invasion, or even a threat of invasion. Despite an uptick in the last few months, the number of illegal border-crossings is only about a quarter of what it was back in 2000. (That’s largely because the number of Mexican migrants has fallen sharply in the past decade.) And the caravan of migrants and would-be refugees that formed in Honduras and recently traversed into southern Mexico is still a long way away: about a thousand miles from the U.S. border.
If and when the caravan gets that far, there is every reason to believe that the U.S. Customs and Border Protection—a civilian agency with sixty thousand employees and almost a century of experience—will be able to deal with the challenge of intercepting and processing its members. As Gil Kerlikowske, who served as its commissioner from 2014 to 2017, noted in an interview with the Washington Post, “These are things that C.B.P. can actually handle quite well on their own.” Even if the C.B.P. were to get stretched, the Administration could send in some additional National Guard units to provide backup, as has happened several times before. There is seemingly no need for active-duty troops; indeed there are big questions about what the fifty-two hundred of them will be doing once they arrive at the border to take part in what is officially called Operation Faithful Patriot.
The Posse Comitatus Act, which was passed in 1878, places strict limits on using the armed services as part of civilian law enforcement. In a briefing on Monday, Air Force General Terrence J. O’Shaughnessy, the head of U.S. Northern Command, said his troops would abide by the Posse Comitatus Act and concentrate on support duties, such as hardening border posts and transporting C.P.B. agents. But National Guard units could just as easily carry out these tasks. Nearly “all of the kinds of troops sought for Faithful Patriot exist in the Guard,” the Post’s Dan Lamothe and Nick Miroff noted on Monday.
Of course, the truth is that the launching of a full-scale military operation had nothing to do with the requirements on the border and everything to do with the fact that the midterms are just seven days away. Desperate to shift the attention away from outbreaks of violence by right-wing extremists, and his own role in inciting such attacks, Trump doubled down on the 2016 playbook he had been holding handy all along: demonizing immigrants and inciting racial fears among his white supporters.
From the perspective of Trump and his like-minded Republican allies, the formation of the latest caravan from Honduras was a godsend. Last week, Trump suggested there were “Middle Easterners” among the migrants. On Monday, he claimed, “Gang Members and some very bad people are mixed into the Caravan.” It barely needs saying that there is no evidence to support either of these assertions.
Last week, a New York Times report from Huixtla, Mexico, characterized the caravan as being made up of people of all ages who “seemed driven by a kind of blind faith, born of desperation, that this is their best chance to escape the poverty, violence and hardship they knew at home and to build better lives.” In the city of Mapastepec, my colleague Jonathan Blitzer, interviewed a thirty-year-old man, Daniel Jimenez, who said he didn’t even know if he’d make it as far as the U.S. border, or stay somewhere in Mexico and look for work, but he had felt he simply had to leave Honduras, because “you just can’t live there anymore.”
Trump doesn’t give a fig about the accuracy of his claims, of course. He wants to increase Republican voter turnout next week. He has a low opinion of the party’s voters. And he thinks the best way to get them to the polls is to raise the specter of white America being swamped by non-white immigrants. So, with the support of Mike Pence, Lindsey Graham, and many other Republicans, he’s going at it—pledging to send in the army, rewrite the Constitution, and who knows what else in the days ahead. As he said, there are some “very bad people.” But they aren’t in the caravan.