By JONATHAN LEMIRE and CATHERINE LUCEY, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — Did someone say caravan?
One week after Election Day, President Donald Trump’s daily drumbeat of warnings about a caravan of “bad thugs” and potential terrorists intent on invading the U.S. from Mexico has largely fallen silent.
The migrant caravans are still trudging along, the largest still about 1,000 miles from the southern border, but Trump — and many in the conservative media — have dramatically reduced the frequency and intensity of their dire warnings now that they no longer feel the same urgency to stir up GOP voters.
Trump and his media allies have largely moved on: They’re more focused now on the possibility of electoral chicanery in recounts in the Florida Senate and governor’s races.
Within the West Wing and in Trump’s orbit of allies, there is a sense that the caravan was a useful midterm messaging tool, one that became the centerpiece of an eleventh-hour pre-election strategy modeled on the president’s 2016 campaign pledges to crack down on illegal immigration, according to four White House officials and outside advisers not authorized to speak publicly about private conversations.
But once the election was over, the president’s attention turned elsewhere, the officials and advisers said.
For weeks before the election, the caravan was a dominant news story. The largest caravan was believed to have formed in Honduras on Oct. 12 and first was featured in a “Fox & Friends” segment four days later, which prompted a tweet from the show’s most famous fan.
As the midterms approached, Trump and his conservative allies flooded the zone with harsh rhetoric and hardline policy proposals, including sending troops to the border, revoking birthright citizenship and an ad featuring a Latino man convicted of killing two police officers that was widely condemned as racist.
But the caravan was Trump’s favorite talking point. During his final blitz of campaign rallies, he hammered at the threat night after night and, without evidence, suggested that Democrats were supporting — and perhaps funding — the march of migrants.
“Democrats are inviting caravan after caravan of illegal aliens to pour into our country, overwhelming your schools, your hospitals, and your communities,” Trump said in Ft. Wayne, Indiana, on election eve. “If you want more caravans, if you want more crime, vote Democrat tomorrow. ... If you want strong borders and safe communities, no drugs, no caravans, vote Republican.”
Trump ratcheted up his rhetoric on Twitter too. One tweet read: “We will NOT let these Caravans, which are also made up of some very bad thugs and gang members, into the U.S. Our Border is sacred, must come in legally. TURN AROUND!”
That tweet, on Oct. 31, was his last on the subject. Since the election, he’s invoked the caravan only once. Asked about it during a news conference last Wednesday, Trump said “I’m not just talking about the caravans” when talking about militarizing the southern border and his proposed wall.
On Friday, Trump signed a proclamation restricting asylum applications but did so with little fanfare and no press coverage before he departed for a trip to Paris. The White House did not respond to a request for comment on whether further action on immigration was imminent.
“Clearly, this was an election-eve stunt designed to whip up the base that really didn’t have much foundation in fact and, clearly, when the election was over there was no need to keep beating those drums,” said Mark Feldstein, journalism professor at the University of Maryland. He added that what the conservative media did with the story was “really toxic” and divided an already polarized country.
“The very fact that they dropped it so suddenly is just further confirmation of how bogus the story was in the first place,” Feldstein said.
Fox News spent more than 33 hours discussing the caravan through Election Day, according to a study by Media Matters, a progressive media watchdog organization. On Nov. 7, the day after the election, Fox had no discussions centered on the caravan. On Nov. 8, the network spent four minutes and 57 seconds on discussions centered on the caravan, according to the study.
Some Republicans said the caravan’s fade from the spotlight was a natural part of the election cycle.
“Every election, there are a series of issues that rise to artificial highs and then, once the votes are cast, settle back down to normal noise,” said Ari Fleischer, former press secretary to President George W. Bush. “Both parties do it; this isn’t some trumped up phony issue. The caravan will be back in the news once it gets closer to the border.”
Trump had suggested sending up to 15,000 troops to the border; currently there are approximately 1,000 at the border itself and another 4,800 in staging areas nearby. The deployment is scheduled to end Dec. 15 but that could be changed, extended or shortened.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis plans to visit the border Wednesday. He was asked by a reporter Tuesday whether the military mission along the border of south Texas will change, now that the lead migrant caravan in Mexico is headed much farther west.
“Right now, the mission is exactly what it is,” he said. “We’ll have to see what the future holds. But right now that’s the only mission I have.”
Lemire reported from New York. Associated Press writers David Bauder in New York and Robert Burns in Washington contributed reporting.