President Donald Trump is now without Steve Bannon, the man who most encouraged his hardline political instincts and helped turn Trumpism into a winning movement. But the president on Tuesday is returning to a different source of political and psychic comfort: Arizona, where he unveiled fiery immigration rhetoric and strict policies long before he was president.
Tuesday's border facility tour in Yuma and campaign rally in Phoenix — announced in the wake of his angry and defensive response to the white supremacist-fueled violence in Charlottesville — brings the president back to the city he twice used to stabilize and grow his support during the tumultuous presidential campaign, and where he unveiled his campaign's most articulated immigration policy rollout.
Just a month after he announced his candidacy in June 2015, Trump revved up 5,000 people over immigration in Phoenix — telling the largest crowd of his campaign up to that point that he would make sure they take their country back, and that "Chinese leaders are much smarter than Obama and his bunch of clowns" on trade.
A year later, after sending mixed messages on his stance on legalizing undocumented immigrants, Trump returned to Phoenix just two weeks after bringing Bannon onto his campaign for what became known as his illegal immigration speech, in which he listed "victims of the Obama–Clinton open borders policies," and said there would be "zero tolerance for criminal aliens."
Trump now returns to Arizona to show who he is without Bannon behind the curtain. For his supporters who rallied to his cause over immigration in particular, it will be a revealing moment. For those worried after last week's maligned Charlottesville response that the president is dwelling too much on his base to the exclusion of others, it is anxiety-inducing.
"Will he try to prove himself without Bannon? I don’t know," said Matt Mackowiak, a GOP strategist. "It's the kind of thing Bannon would have wanted him to do, but is this an event the rest of the team is enthusiastic about? You have to ask yourself, what is the goal of the rally? Is it going to move anybody?"
More than just staking out immigration stances unpopular beyond Trump's base, Republicans are also concerned that the president will go after Arizona Sens. Jeff Flake, who is facing a primary challenge and has been openly critical of Trump, and John McCain, who is battling brain cancer and cast a decisive vote against Senate Republicans' health care plan.
"There's a potential for going after Flake," Mackowiak said. He warned that doing so would just "make it more likely" that Democrats manage to take his seat next year.
Senate Republicans appear to be trying to forestall any effort against Flake before Trump even speaks. After Trump bashed Flake in a tweet last week and said it was "Great to see that Dr. Kelli Ward is running against Flake Jeff Flake," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell came to the senator's defense in his own tweet, saying he has his full support.
The defense took a further step on Tuesday morning, with the McConnell-backed Senate Leadership Fund posting an ad on YouTube lambasting Ward's "embarrassing behavior" and "dangerous ideas." "Not conservative, just crazy ideas," the ad concludes.
There is also concern that Trump will go through with a controversial idea he floated to Fox News last week: pardoning former Maricopa County sheriff Joe Arpaio, who was convicted last month of defying a judge’s order to stop racially profiling Latinos.
Activists and operatives from the left and the right say doing so would be a major mistake and energize a strong opposition.
Carlos Garcia, an Arizona immigration activist who has worked to stop deportations of community members, said a pardon would spit in the face of the work groups like his did to oust Arpaio, as well as "in the face of their own party, which talks about law and order and instead would cement him as the white supremacist that he is."
"It ties him to what Arpaio has done," Garcia added, saying that a pardon would be "a message that he encourages that behavior and that’s what we can expect from him."
Mario H. Lopez, a former George W. Bush official and president of the conservative Hispanic Leadership Fund, said he has personally spoken to Latinos who were wrongly rounded up by Arpaio, and said Republican language on the "rule of law" doesn't work if Trump undermines it with regards to Arpaio.
"Joe Arpaio was convicted for very good reasons," he said. "But the rule of law is obviously a sham if you're going to give amnesty to someone like him."
Trump's Tuesday plan appears on paper to be an attempt to structure a day around what the administration considers to be its immigration enforcement successes. But with Arpaio and Flake looming, the plan could backfire and further alienate people outside Trump's base.
The White House isn't barren of advocates for the hardline immigration approach beloved by Trump's base, despite Bannon's exit. Trump still has strong voices for tighter immigration policy close at hand, with senior adviser Stephen Miller gaining influence and writing Trump's speeches in recent months.
Miller has been barred from briefing Trump on President Obama's program that protects young undocumented immigrants, known as DACA, which he wants to get rid of, McClatchy reported this week. Other administration officials, according to the report, are pushing for broader immigration legislation that would trade keeping the DACA program for other parts of Trump's immigration agenda. While Bannon also held the hardline view on DACA, he privately advised the president to use the program as leverage in "grand bargain" negotiations with Democrats, BuzzFeed News learned.
And above everything hangs Trump's famed proposed border wall.
While the administration has received bids and selected firms to build a physical wall on the US–Mexico border, efforts to secure funding from Congress have stalled, and Trump is not guaranteed a win in the coming budget process on the issue he made central to his campaign.
That's why Department of Homeland Security officials argued on Tuesday morning that the border tour to Yuma would bring attention to the need for a wall and place pressure on Congress for increased security. The officials told reporters on a briefing call that there have been 126,472 apprehensions at the border so far this year, a decrease of 46% since the same period in 2016. And they said the Yuma sector, which went from 5 miles of fencing to 63 miles in recent years, is a prime example of how successful an increase in enforcement, along with physical barriers and other infrastructure, can be across the entire border.
But creating a trip for the purpose of pointing to the need for his wall risks reminding Americans that Trump has so far failed to make progress on a top campaign promise. In fact, when Trump laid out his immigration plan in an uncharacteristically detailed policy speech in Phoenix last summer, the wall was the number one priority, ahead of ending "catch and release," and zero tolerance on undocumented immigrants with criminal records.
That's why Mackowiak said he would have rather seen Trump do an infrastructure event. But the last time Trump tried to do something like that was last Tuesday, when he went far off script on the violence in Charlottesville, completely obscuring infrastructure policy.
"He's not in a position where he can have another big failure publicly, and that’s the big risk," he said.
Adrian Carrasquillo is the White House correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.
Contact Adrian Carrasquillo at email@example.com.
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