President Donald Trump spotlighted a familiar culprit after the terrorist attack in New York City on Tuesday: U.S. immigration laws. But rather than just push for his travel ban, he targeted a specific program - the “Diversity Visa Lottery Program” - which he said the New York attacker used to emigrate from Uzbekistan. Then he spotlighted one specific culprit: Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y.
“A Chuck Schumer beauty,” Trump declared of the program.
Trump’s very personal allegation was quickly denounced by Democrats. In response, Schumer is now pointing to Trump’s proposed budget having contained a cut to a program that helps cities prevent and recover from terrorist attacks. “President Trump, instead of politicizing and dividing America, which he always seems to do at times of national tragedy, should be bringing us together and focusing on the real solution- anti-terrorism funding - which he proposed to cut in his most recent budget,” Schumer said.
It’s 100 percent true that Trump calling out Schumer by name smacks of politics. But it’s also true that both men are now essentially attacking the other’s policy in response to the tragedy. In a sense, both are now “politicizing” it, even as Trump clearly got the ball rolling.
Of course, “politicizing” is a very loaded term - and one with which the Trump White House seems to have a relationship of convenience. After the mass shooting in Las Vegas, it was the White House that accused Democrats of immediately politicizing the tragedy by pushing for gun control. “There’s a time and place for a political debate, but now is the time to unite as a country,” press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said at the time.
As I’ve long said, it’s only “politicizing” if you disagree with the policy proposal. If you think it’s a good idea, then it’s a much-needed reform, proposed at precisely the right time.
For Democrats, proposing gun control immediately after a mass shooting is just a common-sense measure to prevent such tragedies. Republicans who disagree that gun control is the answer see this as Democrats seizing upon tragedy to push their anti-gun agenda.
Similarly, some Republicans like Trump will look at what happened in New York and see more restrictive immigration policies as common-sense measures to prevent such tragedies. Democrats who disagree that the country should turn away immigrants see this as Trump seizing upon tragedy to push his anti-immigrant agenda.
In both cases, the facts matter. And Trump has a tendency to flout the facts and lodge personal attacks, which hurts his cause. But his basic case about immigration laws needing to be strengthened isn’t inherently politicizing tragedy any more than Democrats pushing gun control is politicizing tragedy. Trump has long argued that our immigration system is too loose, and reining in this type of visa lottery program in favor of a merit-based approach very much fits with that argument.
In this case, Trump is spotlighting a program that was indeed first proposed by Schumer back in the early 1990s and included in a larger immigration bill. The more-recent Gang of 8 immigration proposal (of which Schumer was a part) would have gotten rid of it and led to a more merit-based approach. In other words, Trump’s basic proposal in response to what happened in New York is within the mainstream and is something Schumer once backed as part of a broader deal.
But by calling Schumer out by name, Trump made it much easier for critics to accuse him of politicizing the issue.
Aaron Blake is senior political reporter for The Fix.