By the time Donald Trump stepped onstage during Lee Greenwood’s rendition of “God Bless the U.S.A.” at the Make America Great Again rally in Duluth, Minnesota, on the evening of June 20, he was confronting the first crisis of his re-election campaign. Wrenching reports of federal agents ripping infants from their parents’ arms—the result of Trump’s “zero tolerance” immigration crackdown at the southern border—had been playing in a constant loop on cable news.
Chaos had engulfed the West Wing, too, as officials offered shifting and conflicting explanations for the policy: Trump blamed Democrats; Attorney General Jeff Sessions called it a “deterrent”; Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said it wasn’t. Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders refused to appear on-camera to defend the separations, according to two sources close to her. Melania Trump issued a rare statement critiquing her husband’s policy without first clearing it with White House officials, a source said; she even asked her press secretary to call a Trump surrogate and thank him after he derided the policy on CNN.
For much of the country, the situation at the border posed a moral crisis. But for the Trump campaign, the quandary was political. Immigration was not only a Trumpian rhetorical staple—Build the Wall!