This story was updated on May 17, 2018 at 10:37 a.m.
Has Donald Trump declared that all of the unauthorized migrants his administration has deported from the U.S. are “animals”? A California sheriff, Margaret Mims, expressed her frustration in a meeting with Trump over the fact that a new state law had limited her local department’s ability to cooperate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, thus making it harder for federal immigration authorities to, in her words, “find the bad guys.” Mims lamented that even if she was holding a known member of MS-13, the notoriously brutal transnational gang, she might be barred from notifying ICE. The president responded forcefully: “We have people coming into the country, or trying to come in—and we’re stopping a lot of them—but we’re taking people out of the country. 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.”
Given the context, it is fairly clear that Trump was referring to violent offenders. But that is not how his message has been received. Recognizing an opportunity to strike a blow against the president, some of his opponents have suggested that he was referring to allunauthorized migrants, including mothers and children and countless others who command the sympathy of all decent people. When pressed on whether this is entirely fair, the response has almost invariably been that Trump does not deserve the benefit of the doubt. Trump’s ferocious rhetoric has been one of his greatest assets. It helped him make mincemeat of his rivals for the Republican presidential nomination, and it continues to electrify his devotees. Yet this recent contretemps is a reminder that his rhetoric can also be turned against him, and to devastating effect.