TUPELO, Miss. (AP) — President Donald Trump brought back the playbook he used during the leadup to the midterm elections, warning of the dangers of illegal immigration and painting Democrats as radical "socialists," as he returned to the campaign trail Monday to try to keep a Mississippi Senate seat in GOP hands.
A day after U.S. border agents deployed tear gas on a group of migrants after some tried to charge the U.S.-Mexico border, Trump returned to the campaign scare talk that had largely disappeared following the Nov. 6 midterms. Trump had made the approaching Central American caravan a central issue of the 2018 elections.
The president has stressed his desire for bipartisanship in the days since the midterms, when Democrats took control of the House. But on Monday, he painted Democrats as radical and dangerous as he stumped for Republican Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, who is facing Democrat Mike Espy in a Tuesday runoff election that could pad the GOP's current 52-47 advantage in the Senate.
At his first rally of the day in Tupelo, Trump told the crowd that the runoff would "decide whether we build on our extraordinary achievements or whether we empower the radical Democrats to obstruct our progress."
He claimed Espy would "vote in total lockstep" with Sen. Chuck Schumer, Rep. Nancy Pelosi and "the legendary Maxine Waters," drawing resounding boos — even though Trump has said that Pelosi deserves to become the next House speaker and that he could even find Republican members to vote for her.
Later, at a Christmas-themed rally in Biloxi, where Trump emerged on the stage from a chimney, he said that Democrats want to impose an "extreme job-killing agenda" and that a vote for Espy would be a vote for a "Democrat agenda of socialism and open borders."
"Democrats will also destroy your health care by inviting caravan after caravan after caravan" of immigrants into the country illegally, he claimed, warning they would wreak havoc and bankrupt the Treasury Department.
The comments underscore the president's willingness to cycle between insults and flattery depending on his purpose. And they foreshadow the messaging dissonance that could mark the next two years of his presidency as he faces a divided Congress — a Republican-majority Senate and a Democrat-controlled House — after two years of across-the-board Republican power.
Trump was in Mississippi for the pair of rallies and a roundtable discussion on prison and sentencing reform in an eleventh-hour effort to keep the seat in GOP hands. Hyde-Smith's runoff election against Espy, a former congressman and U.S. agriculture secretary, has been far closer than expected thanks to a series of racial controversies, including a photo that emerged of Hyde-Smith wearing a replica hat of a Confederate soldier, and a video in which she said she'd be "on the front row" if invited to a public hanging.
Trump said repeatedly Monday that Hyde-Smith had apologized for her comments and that he believed she was sincere.
On immigration, Trump defended the U.S. response to the border clash on Sunday, when U.S. agents fired tear gas at migrants, some of whom had attempted to climb through fencing and wire separating the countries.
Trump told the crowd in Tupelo that "we don't want those people in Mississippi" and that immigrants are "not coming through anymore" illegally.
He said the message his administration was sending was clear: "Turn back now, go back home. We will not let you in."
Trump had likened the approaching caravans to an "invasion" in the days leading up to the Nov. 6 midterm elections, but critics accused him of exaggerating the threat in order to motivate his base to turn out and vote. Trump all but dropped his references to the migrants in the days after the election, adding credence to their claims. Trump had also threatened to challenge the constitutionally protected right to birthright citizenship and deployed thousands of troops to the border in his pre-election flurry of immigration action.
If victorious, Espy would become Mississippi's first black senator since Reconstruction and the first Mississippi Democrat elected to the Senate since 1982. Trump won 58 percent of the state's vote in 2016, and Hyde-Smith has tied herself closely to his presidency.
"I am honored to have President Trump's endorsement," she said as the two appeared at a chilly outdoor rally at the airport in the northeastern city of Tupelo, best known as the birthplace of Elvis Presley.
Trump gave a shout-out to the "king of rock 'n' roll" after taking the stage and said that, when he was young, "other than the blond hair, they said I looked like Elvis."
Tuesday's winner will finish the final two years of the term begun by Republican Sen. Thad Cochran, who resigned in April because of health problems.
Trump predicted a big day on Tuesday for Hyde-Smith and the Republican Party. He complained that the media has focused too much on the GOP losses in the House and not enough on the party's performance in the Senate.
"We've done great, and now we're going to do a little bit better by adding an extra vote," Trump said.
Associated Press writer Deb Riechmann contributed to this report from Washington.