ESTERO, Fla. — President Trump introduced the polarizing issue of birthright citizenship as a central plank of his closing argument to voters here Wednesday night as he began his final campaign sprint to Election Day.
Trump said illegal immigration was the driving issue of the midterm elections and vowed that with enlarged Republican congressional majorities he would achieve his immigration priorities, including eliminating the constitutional right to citizenship for those born in the United States to undocumented immigrant parents.
The president spoke at length about birthright citizenship, which he called “this crazy policy” that he said allowed “hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrant children” born on U.S. soil to automatically become U.S. citizens and therefore eligible for every privilege and benefit of citizenship.
“Birthright citizenship — you know all about it — we will keep the criminals, the drug dealers, we will keep them all out of our country,” Trump said. “We will get rid of all of this. We will end, finally, birthright citizenship. It’s costing us so many billions of dollars.”
Trump said this week that he was considering signing an executive order ending birthright citizenship, though he acknowledged earlier Wednesday that it was likely to result in a legal challenge that could go all the way to the Supreme Court.
Most legal scholars — as well as House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) — have said the president does not have the power to eliminate the policy with the stroke of his pen because it is a constitutional right spelled out in the 14th Amendment.
But Trump argued otherwise during his rollicking campaign rally at a Florida sports arena.
“The Constitution does not require it,” the president said, because “illegal aliens are not subject to the jurisdiction of the United States.”
The standing crowd of several thousand roared with approval.
Trump has focused on the issue of immigration in the home stretch of the campaign as part of a strategy to stoke fear and galvanize his core supporters to turn out in support of Republican candidates for the Senate, House and governorships.
As he has for days now, here at his Wednesday rally, Trump warned of the caravan of Central American migrants making its way north toward the U.S.-Mexico border. Though the migrants are hundreds of miles from the border, Trump this week deployed 5,200 U.S. troops there and said he was planning to send more.
Trump seemed to preview action at the border. “It’s going to be very interesting over the next week,” he told the rally crowd, though the commander in chief did not offer any details of what he might have in store.
“We’re getting prepared for the caravan, folks,” Trump said. “We’ve got a lot of rough people in those caravans. They are not angels. They are not.” He called the migrants “the opposition,” but added, “We’re tougher than anybody.”
Trump then suggested that border agents might imprison migrants seeking asylum. “They’re not going to be released,” the president said. “It’s called catch, but we take the word ‘release’ out. We’re not going to be releasing them.” The crowd cheered.
The president kicked off his sprint to Election Day with plans to hold at least 11 “Make America Great Again” rallies in Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Missouri, Montana, Ohio, Tennessee and West Virginia.
Trump won each of these states in 2016 and is trying to leverage his popularity in them to lift Republican candidates for the U.S. Senate and governorships to victory. He cast the election as a referendum on his presidency, saying, “Everything we have achieved” is at stake. He called this “one of the most important elections of our entire lives — though I will say, not as important as 2016.”
Trump spotlighted Florida Republican candidates, including two who joined him on stage: Gov. Rick Scott, who is running for the Senate, and Rep. Ron DeSantis, who is running for governor. He also singled out two congressmen up for reelection, Reps. Francis Rooney and Matt Gaetz, though he notably said nothing about their records on behalf of Floridians. Rather, he praised their defense of him on cable television.
“So great to me on television,” Trump said of Rooney. “I love it when he defends me. He’s brutal. He gets the job done.”
Both Scott and DeSantis used their turn on Trump’s stage — behind the presidential lectern, with thousands of his devoted supporters watching from around the arena — to bash their respective Democratic opponents, Sen. Bill Nelson and Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum.
DeSantis called Gillum a “failed mayor” and said Gillum was “running on impeaching the president.” Then he brought up the federal public-corruption investigation of Tallahassee — Gillum has said he did nothing wrong — and said, “Maybe we should impeach Gillum as mayor of Tallahassee!”
That inspired the crowd to chant, “Lock him up!”
Trump opened his rally by condemning the massacre of 11 Jewish worshipers last Saturday at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, which the president visited Tuesday. The president denounced “the vile poison of anti-Semitism” but almost immediately turned to attack the news media for its coverage of the community’s peaceful protests of his visit. He accused the media of using the tragedy to sow anger.
“We have forcefully condemned hatred, racism, bigotry and prejudice in all of its forms, but the media doesn’t want you to hear your story,” Trump said. “It’s not my story; it’s your story. And that’s why 33 percent of the people in this country believe the fake news is in fact — and I hate to say this — in fact the enemy of the people.”
The crowd chanted in response, “CNN Sucks!” One woman in the stands could be heard loudly screaming the name of Jim Acosta, the network’s chief White House correspondent, who was covering the rally.
Even as his fans shouted down journalists, chanted for a Democratic mayor to be jailed and cheered for the end of birthright citizenship, Trump tried to portray his movement — “the greatest movement in the history of our country,” as he put it — as one of harmony and inclusiveness.
“Our movement is about love for fellow Americans,” Trump said. “Our movement is where everyone belongs.”