Trump ran on the promise to crack down on immigration and a little over a week before the presidential election, his Homeland Security chief was in Phoenix amplifying that message, blurring the line between official business and electoral politics.
Speaking from Arizona, a battleground state, Wolf ran through a litany of immigration policy changes, touting them as successes while delivering veiled criticisms at Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s immigration proposals.
Over time, the changes to the US immigration system have been swift and sweeping. Wolf suggested Thursday that any reversal to those policies would put the public at risk.
“Decriminalizing illegal entry, stopping the deportation of criminal aliens, resuming catch and release, returning to a broken asylum system, dismantling the border wall system, walking away from landmark international agreements, and putting foreign workers first in line for American jobs is not the way to secure the Homeland,” Wolf said. “These are not just bad policies, these are dangerous.”
The Trump administration’s changes to the US immigration system may stand to be one of the President’s most lasting legacies. But the timing of a DHS speech only days before the Nov. 3 election appears more intended to service the President’s re-election.
“Again — even if you avoid saying the name Joe Biden — it’s clear he’s trying to paint a picture that all the things that he thinks the Trump administration has accomplished would be turned around,” said David Lapan, a former Homeland Security official.
In recent weeks, Wolf has appeared at a number of press conferences, of which some have been focused on singling out jurisdictions that limit cooperation between local law enforcement and federal immigration authorities, a policy Trump has repeatedly criticized.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement, an agency that falls under DHS, also put up billboards picturing immigrants who were previously arrested or convicted of crimes in six locations in Pennsylvania, a critical swing state. The billboards cost $9,000, according to a senior ICE official.
Wolf has dismissed accusations of the department’s actions being political in nature. “It’s not about an election. It’s not about Republicans or Democrats. It’s about sanctuary city policies,” Wolf said during a news conference earlier this month on sanctuary jurisdictions.
“If the President were counting on being re-elected, none of those things would be the case,” countered Lapan. “The only thing he’s talking about is what a different administration might do.”
The Department of Homeland Security and Justice Department have increasingly come under scrutiny for appearing overly political.
Some Justice officials have also taken notice of Barr’s increased travel in recent weeks, an anywhere-but-Washington tour that suggested he was trying to keep a lower profile at a time Trump has been expressing dissatisfaction with Barr and the Justice Department.
The Justice Department says Barr’s travel was intended to highlight the work of prosecutors and federal agents for “Operation Legend,” an important anti-violent crime initiative.
But the tour has also come at a time when Barr has had to deliver the bad news to the President and his supporters that there won’t be a big October surprise from John Durham, the federal prosecutor Barr appointed to investigate the origins of the Trump-Russia probe.
Durham is known to work slowly, often taking three years in his inquiries. But for months, Barr turned up in conservative media interviews to raise the hopes that Durham could deliver major findings before the election.
Immigration enforcement also falls under Trump’s “law-and-order” push and on Thursday, Wolf delivered a full-throated defense of the myriad immigration policy changes ushered forward by this administration.
“This administration inherited a broken and outdated border security and immigration system,” said Wolf, who assumed the acting secretary role last November. “And while we tried to work with Congress early on to address funding and loopholes that incentivize illegal behavior, we have received little to no help over the last several years.”
The Trump administration has put in place nearly insurmountable challenges for people seeking refuge in the United States, making asylum seekers wait in Mexico for their US court date, deeming those who have transited through another country ineligible for asylum in the US, and most recently, turning back migrants apprehended at the US-Mexico border under a public health order.
Trump has gone on a campaign of publicly blasting his appointed leaders like Barr and FBI Director Christopher Wray. In recent weeks, the President has said he “can’t comment” on whether Barr will remain as his attorney general if he wins the election and condescendingly called Barr a “nice guy” for not “locking up” Biden.
“The Department of Justice under the leadership of Attorney General Barr has worked to carry out the President’s priorities, including restoring law and order to our communities through Operation Legend, confronting China, and combatting human trafficking and smuggling,” Judd Deere, a White House official, told CNN.
Barr, who was appointed as the attorney general in February 2019, has refrained from responding each time Trump criticized his life’s work with law enforcement and has continued making public appearances at various law enforcement organization events to spread the same tough-on-crime rhetoric.
In recent weeks, Barr has visited Albuquerque, New Orleans, St. Louis and Marco Island, Florida.
During those speeches, Barr consistently urged registered voters to pay attention to the mayors, judges and district attorneys they are retaining; touted the hundreds of charges brought through “Operation Legend” and said the vast majority of police shootings were with suspects that resisted arrest.
At an appearance in Memphis, Barr ignored a reporter who shouted a question at him about Trump wanting him to intervene in the election. “Mr. Barr, the President wants you to intervene in the election, are you going to intervene in the election, on behalf of President Trump?” the reporter bellowed. “What you gonna do?”
Barr didn’t respond.
CNN’s Evan Perez contributed to this report.