Trump's Immigration Orders Galvanize Democrats
In the days after Donald Trump’s election, congressional Democrats Chuck Schumer, Nancy Pelosi, Elizabeth Warren and others identified areas where their party could work with the new president.
But Monday night, little more than a week into the Trump administration, Democratic leaders took to the steps of the Supreme Court to rail against him. Warren declared that business as usual in Congress was over. Earlier on the Senate floor, Schumer pledged to fight new and executive orders on immigration “with every fiber in my being.”
Barack Obama praised the massive protests in city streets and airport terminals across the country, breaking with former presidents’ tradition of staying clear of the political fray.
The inauguration of President Trump and his executive actions on campaign promises have quickly galvanized the liberal base in ways Obama, Hillary Clinton, and even celebrity surrogates failed to do last year. Now, Democratic leaders are attempting to catch up and capitalize on what they hope is the beginning of a grassroots movement.
But with this new energy comes increased, and possibly unrelenting, pressure on Democrats by party activists to faithfully oppose Trump at every turn, or be at the receiving end of the growing demonstrations. On the other hand, candidates who embrace the resistance could then alienate moderate swing voters by appearing cynical or hyper-partisan.
For now, at least, Democrats see little downside to going with the flow. The administration’s botched rollout of the executive order temporarily banning Syrian refugees and immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries generated bipartisan angst. “Already, 10 days into the Trump administration, we've seen him do things that give Republicans permission to split with him,” said Lanae Erickson Hatalsky of Third Way, a centrist D.C. think tank.
Notably, several moderate, red state Democrats up for re-election in 2018 came out against the ban, or at least the administration’s handling of it, signaling perhaps a broader opposition beyond the party base. The order “confirms the lie terrorists tell their recruits: that America is waging a war on Islam. This is outrageous,” North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp said in a statement.
The president’s firing Monday night of acting Attorney General Sally Yates, who had said she would not enforce the executive order on immigration, will likely further embolden Democrats. Party leaders are trying to stall Trump’s choice for U.S. attorney general, Jeff Sessions, along with the remaining Cabinet nominees. And Democrats are already planning to filibuster Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, who will be announced Tuesday.
Democrats risk overplaying their hand. Some lawmakers are weighing the consequences of filibustering the Supreme Court nominee to the extent that it pushes Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell to alter the Senate rules to require a simple majority to confirm Trump’s pick. Such a move would leave Democrats with even less leverage to exercise over the next vacancy, which would upset the conservative-liberal balance of the court.
But for now, the calculation seems to be that opposing Trump is good for rebuilding the party, and that Democrats aren’t that likely to gain credit at the ballot box for working with the new president.
"We have never in living memory seen an electorate as fired up and angry and engaged as they are right now," said Ben Wikler, Washington director of the liberal group Moveon.org. The mood is so intense that "a firestorm of criticism … awaits [Democratic lawmakers] when they don't stand up to Trump."
Asked whether the grassroots activism may include threats of primary challenges to Democrats who work with Trump, Wikler said: "Everything is on the table."
Moveon.org is one of several groups already organizing a protest on the steps of the Supreme Court for when the president announces his pick to fill the vacancy created by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia.
The president’s supporters have dismissed the Democrats’ efforts as partisan politics. "I think he could name Jesus Christ and he would still have a fight," former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee told Fox News on Monday regarding Trump’s impending nominee. "This is not about who he appoints or what he does. This is about what the Democrats have decided to dig in their heels [over] and to engage in what they are calling total resistance. Resist everything."
The resistance has done little so far to move Trump. The president responded to Schumer’s tearful speech in Battery Park Sunday night denouncing the refugee ban by saying, “I’m going to ask him who is his acting coach.”
“It’s about a five percent chance it was real,” Trump said in front of cameras inside the White House. “I think those were fake tears.”
The administration has been unwavering in its defense of the immigration order and unwilling to admit any communications oversights, which have drawn critisism from members of both parties. Instead, Trump’s team has defended the actions as a fulfillment of a campaign promise and a policy that has public support.
Just 36 percent of Americas approve of the job Trump is doing, according to a new Quinnipiac poll. But the same survey earlier this month found that 48 percent of voters support suspending immigration from terror-prone regions, even it means banning refugees, while 42 percent oppose it. Additionally, 53 percent of voters support requiring immigrants from Muslim countries to register with the federal government.
And Trump hasn’t yet faced significant backlash within his own party. Even opposition statements from Republican lawmakers regarding the immigration order were tempered, with frustration focused more on the rollout than on the actual policy.
Some Democrats are pushing Republicans to turn their frustrations with the administration into congressional oversight. Others are proposing legislation to overturn the ban or defund its implementation. But such efforts are largely symbolic without buy-in from Republicans, who have a majority in both chambers.
While Democrats have little legislative recourse or much political leverage, activists have heralded the opportunities to raise money and rebuild the demoralized party. The American Civil Liberties Union claimed to have raised $24 million over the weekend in response to the president’s executive order on refugees. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee said it raised $3.2 million in grassroots donations over the past month and is touting historical trends that show a sitting president’s party will losing congressional seats in the first midterm election of his term.
Questions remain, though, whether and how Democrats can turn current events into a movement and translate that support into actual votes. Activist groups are setting expectations.
“The anti-Trump resistance is going to make the Tea Party seem like a tempest in a tea pot,” said Moveon.org’s Wikler. “I think it's going to transform the Democratic Party.”