STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Let's listen to a dramatic moment from the president's campaign rally last night. He was before a crowd in North Carolina, and he spoke at length about four Democratic lawmakers. These are freshmen, all women of color, who have pushed to confront the president. And the president has seized almost a week's worth of attention by saying these four U.S. citizens - three of them U.S.-born - should go back where they came from.
This theme led to a chant of, send her back, when the president spoke of one lawmaker, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota. Let's hear the whole thing.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Omar has a history of launching vicious anti-Semitic screeds.
UNIDENTIFIED AUDIENCE MEMBERS: (Chanting) Send her back. Send her back. Send her back. Send her back. Send her back. Send her back. Send her back. Send her back. Send her back.
TRUMP: And she talked about the evil Israel and it's all about the Benjamins - not a good thing to say.
INSKEEP: Representative Omar did use that phrase about Benjamins, suggesting that some lawmakers support Israel for money. Criticized by Republicans and Democrats, she apologized. From the president, there's been no apology for saying that certain U.S. citizens should leave the United States. NPR White House correspondent Ayesha Rascoe was at the campaign rally and is on the line. Good morning.
AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: Good morning.
INSKEEP: How much did the president focus on these four lawmakers?
RASCOE: He focused on them a lot. He called each lawmaker by name. And he really painted them as anti-American and radical. Here's a bit of how he described them.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
TRUMP: These left-wing ideologues see our nation as a force of evil the way they speak so badly of our country. They want to demolish our Constitution, weaken our military, eliminate the values that built this magnificent country.
RASCOE: And the crowd was really into it. You can hear some of it there. Someone screamed out, they're evil. And people were shouting, traitor. So the crowd was really worked up. And Trump seemed to be really trying to make these four women the face of the Democratic Party.
INSKEEP: Well, why spend almost a week now on four House freshmen instead of the Democratic presidential candidates?
RASCOE: Trump seems to be making this bet that these four women will be able to get his base more worked up than just focusing on the presidential candidates. And last night, it did seem like the crowd responded a lot more to him talking about the four Congresswomen than they did when he talked about Joe Biden or Elizabeth Warren or any of the other Democrats running for president.
INSKEEP: OK, thanks, Ayesha. NPR's Ayesha Rascoe on the road this morning.
Let's bring in another voice now. Scott Jennings is a longtime Republican strategist in our studios in Washington. Scott, welcome back to the program.
SCOTT JENNINGS: Good morning.
INSKEEP: What do you think about a crowd chanting, send her back, send her back?
JENNINGS: Well, I don't like the message, first of all. She's an American. She lives under the same Constitution and Bill of Rights that we do, and that includes the First Amendment. She has every right to be here and to speak.
And my view is it's better for the Republican Party - and this is what Trump's actually trying to do - if she and the other three members of the squad do speak more and more because I think they, to Republicans, represent the most extreme elements of the left in America today. So this is the ultimate strategy by Trump; make them the face of the Democratic Party. Don't give any oxygen to the people who are actually running for president.
INSKEEP: I just want to check on one thing. You feel that's what the president is trying to do. That does sound like a political strategy that has a certain rationale behind it. But are you sure that that is all he's trying to do? Or is he trying to stir up racism?
JENNINGS: I don't believe he's trying to stir up racism. I believe he's trying to stir up the specter of socialism. He's trying to stir up the specter of the policies that these more radical freshmen Democrats stand for. And, frankly, those Democrats have been a headache, I think, for the House Democratic leadership. So the more he can make them the face of the party and continue to stir the pot inside the Democratic House conference, they think that inures to their benefit - fractured Democrats, united Republicans.
INSKEEP: I want to figure out something politically here, though, Scott Jennings, because if you talk about the ideas of the House freshmen or any number of Democrats right now, I mean, there are things that you can argue about. Do you want to do the Green New Deal? What does that look like? What does that mean for the economy? Do you want to do "Medicare for All"? What do you want to do about education? There are a lot of ideas that can be argued about.
But I don't think it's unfair to say that the president doesn't really engage people on their ideas. He labels them. They're socialist. They should leave the country. Why do you think he's unable to argue with their ideas?
JENNINGS: Well, I think he wants to label all of their ideas very generically, and that is these are socialist ideas. I think as the campaign wears on, he's going to - and I think this is especially going to manifest itself in the area of immigration - he's going to specifically contrast his views on controlling illegal immigration and their views, which he will, of course, argue is open borders and decriminalization, et cetera, et cetera.
So I think right now, the mission is, generally, make them look like they are extremists. And, by the way, this is a well-worn strategy for incumbent presidents. Try to define your party, your opponent party and the opponent before they ever really get out of the box. Barack Obama did this very effectively to the Republicans after the Tea Party and the Republicans took over in 2010. He did this very effectively and really kneecapped Mitt Romney in a lot of ways before he ever got off the ground in 2012.
INSKEEP: You know, I wonder what you would think about this as an American, though. You are describing an effective political strategy - labeling the other side. And it is something that many, many - perhaps, every political candidate does to one extent or another. The president is particularly effective.
But I think about that phrase, open borders, that he applies to Democrats. It's simply false. The Democratic presidential candidates aren't calling for open borders. They have different ideas about how to enforce the border and so forth. They don't call for open borders. What do you think, as an American, that we can't actually have a debate about the actual proposals and whether they make sense or not, as opposed to just labeling people?
JENNINGS: Well, I've worried about the immigration issue since my days working in the Bush White House. We tried to solve it then; we didn't solve it. During the Obama years, the Republicans and Democrats in Congress tried to solve it; they've not been able to solve it when Trump and the Republicans controlled it. It's an intractable problem, it seems. And I think one of the great regrets the Republicans are going to have is not solving it when they had full control under Trump.
So it concerns me greatly because we do have a crisis. There's no doubt the president's right about that. Look what's happening at the border. Look at the number of people who are coming here. Look at the overtaxed people who work for our federal government that are trying to deal with this influx of people. And now we're swept up in a presidential campaign that likely makes a solution at least two years away. And I worry about two more years of an illegal immigration crisis that's taxing a system that's already at its breaking point.
INSKEEP: Do you think the president is winning politically with the way he has approached things this week?
JENNINGS: I think he is unifying his party and he is helping to fracture the Democratic Party. And so if you're thinking of it purely tactically, yeah, I think fractured Democrats help President Trump get reelected in 2020.
INSKEEP: Scott Jennings, always a pleasure talking with you. Thanks.
JENNINGS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.