At a White House roundtable on Wednesday, the man who launched his presidential gambit by labeling Mexicans “rapists” and calling for a massive wall along the southern border expressed his frustration with California’s so-called sanctuary laws in equally venomous terms. “We have people coming into the country, or trying to come in—we’re stopping a lot of them,” he said at one point during the hour-long meeting, which was open to press. “You wouldn’t believe how bad these people are. These aren’t people. These are animals. And we’re taking them out of the country at a level and at a rate that’s never happened before. And because of the weak laws, they come in fast, we get them, we release them, we get them again, we bring them out. It’s crazy.”
To critics, the president’s comments recalled the sort of dog whistle that’s historically been used to dehumanize minority groups. “It’s easy to dismiss what Trump said as nonsense . . . but there is a long tradition of entire groups of people being likened to animals before [and] during periods of mass violence against them,” tweeted author Clint Smith, pointing to the Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide. But on Thursday, Trump’s devoted henchmen doubled down on his comments, with Sarah Huckabee Sanders telling reporters, “The president was very clearly referring to MS-13 gang members who enter the country illegally . . . if the media and liberals want to defend MS-13 they’re more than welcome to. . . . MS-13 has done heinous acts,” she continued. “It took an animal to stab a man 100 times and decapitate him and rip his heart out. It took an animal to beat a woman they were sex-trafficking with a bat 28 times indenting part of her body. And it took an animal to kidnap, drug, and rape a 14-year-old Houston girl. Frankly, I think the term animal doesn’t go far enough.”
The full transcript of Trump’s remarks makes abundantly clear that the president, while responding in part to a prompt regarding the MS-13 gang, was in fact speaking generally about illegal immigration. Still, the president’s surrogates eagerly seized an opportunity to browbeat liberal journalists for having taken offense. “Others who rushed to judgment to get the President rather than to get the story owe @POTUS—and the grieving loved ones who have lost family members to gang violence—an apology,” tweeted the unflappable Kellyanne Conway, while Don Jr., along with much of the rest of the Trump cavalcade, defended the comments by insisting that his father used the phrase solely in reference to gang members, and not in reference to the average undocumented immigrant. Local officials reacted with glee, arguing that California makes it more difficult for their communities to deport criminals—the state’s existing law, said Sheriff Margaret Mims,prevents authorities from being able to use her databases “to find the bad guys,” and stops her from accessing prisons to locate people who might be in the country illegally. “It’s a disgrace,” Mr. Trump answered, “and we’re suing on that.”
Naturally, Trump then suggested that the mayor of Oakland should be charged with obstruction of justice for warning her constituents of an impending immigration raid in February. “You talk about obstruction of justice,” he said. “I would recommend that you look into obstruction of justice for the mayor of Oakland.” He then turned to his trembling backup man, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who has announced the Department of Justice will be adding immigration judges and prosecuting twice as many immigration cases this year. “The president has made clear to all of us that we have to do better,” Sessions piped in a harmonious mezzo forte. “We are going to do better.”
Of course, this is not the first time Trump has made such comments. He has a storied legacy of racism, from allegedly favoring white tenants in his real-estate properties over African-Americans; to placing ads in the New York papers calling for the death penalty for five black and Latino teens who were convicted, and later exonerated by DNA evidence, of raping a white woman in Central Park; to banning people from majority-Muslim countries from entering the U.S.; to attacking N.F.L. players for protesting police violence; to calling Haiti and African nations “shithole countries”; to showing rare restraint when it came to denouncing white nationalists in Charlottesville. Nor will it be the last time the president does away with his verbal filter. Trump careened into office on the coattails of change, promising “forgotten” Americans a real Washington shake-up. The economic rewards have yet to trickle down to the white underclass from the corporations that just got a big tax cut, but the psychological benefit of having a race warrior in the White House is real. With Trump in power, the machinery of government has once again been tuned to mete out disproportionate punishment to the wrong sorts of people—the Justice Department has ended programs scrutinizing local police forces; visa applications from Muslim countries have plummeted; deportations of non-criminal aliens has skyrocketed. Wages are barely growing, but the animals are being kept out.