By Cathleen Decker and Noah Bierman
President Trump recommended an obstruction of justice investigation into Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf for impeding a federal roundup and criticized Mexico for doing "nothing" to help on its border with the United States as he expressed his sentiments about illegal immigration to a like-minded group of Californians on Wednesday.
Trump previously had insisted on a harsh penalty for Schaaf, but on Wednesday his remarks were aimed directly at Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions, one of nearly two dozen opponents of illegal immigration gathered for a public meeting at the White House.
"You talk about obstruction of justice. I would recommend that you look at obstruction of justice for the mayor of Oakland," Trump said, nodding in Sessions' direction. "To me that's obstruction of justice. Perhaps the Department of Justice can look into that."
Schaaf has been unapologetic about her decision to warn Bay Area immigrants about pending arrests by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents in February. The result, federal officials said at the time, was to reduce the number of arrests of those suspected of being in the country illegally.
Trump's castigation of Mexico came after he rhetorically asked San Diego County Supervisor Kristin Gaspar whether Mexico "helps or it does nothing for us" in quelling the number of immigrants attempting to cross the border.
"Mexico does nothing for us," he said, answering his own question. "Mexico talks but they do nothing for us, especially at the border."
The session arranged by the White House included Californians who have fought against the state's new "sanctuary" law, which limits communication between local law enforcement and federal immigration agents. Included were elected officials, most of them from conservative areas, and law enforcement officials, all outspoken about their allegiance to Trump.
Supporters of the law, including some law enforcement agencies, contend that it aids them by putting at ease residents who otherwise would not trust police and sheriff's deputies. Opponents argue that it forces the release of criminals who pose a danger to other residents -- even if the measure is limited in scope.
Over and over on Wednesday, speakers compared the sanctuary law to the relationship of different federal and local agencies before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks -- equating the potential threat of illegal immigration to the most damaging terrorist strike on U.S. soil. One speaker, San Juan Capistrano Councilwoman Pam Patterson, suggested that terrorists coming over the border would target the San Onofre nuclear power plant.
"We know that terrorists are coming in," she said, saying the threat equals that of the nuclear disasters at Chernobyl, Russia, and Fukushima, Japan.
Trump did not make that argument, but he did cloak illegal immigration and immigrants in catastrophic rhetoric. He termed them "violent predators" and "sadistic criminals" and recounted "butchery" he said they had employed.
"These aren't people, these are animals," he said of criminal immigrants.
The president's guests, to his seeming delight, cast California as a ruinous state and Gov. Jerry Brown as ignorant of the costs of the sanctuary law he signed.
"California is going down the drain," said Escondido Mayor San Abed. "When Jerry Brown cares more about illegal criminals than cares about his community and American citizens, this is insanity."
But Trump and his guests also exaggerated the breadth of the measure Brown signed last year after demanding changes from legislators that gave greater leeway for cooperation.
The law specifically allows local officials to alert ICE agents about people in jail whose crimes include serious or violent felonies, domestic violence or sex offenses. The measure also allows federal agents to question immigrants in county jails and to work with state prison officials on deportations -- an element demanded by Brown.
The governor fired back at Trump immediately after the president's televised event.
"@realDonaldTrump is lying on immigration, lying about crime and lying about the laws of CA. Flying in a dozen Republican politicians to flatter him and praise his reckless policies changes nothing. We, the citizens of the fifth largest economy in the world, are not impressed," he said on Twitter.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the state's senior Democratic elected official, likewise repudiated Trump, saying his administration "is once again attempting to divide Californians and all Americans."
"Their decision to convene this meeting is about fueling fear of immigrants and scapegoating entire communities," she said in a statement.
The issue of illegal immigration was a staple of Trump's presidential campaign and has loomed larger as the administration heads into contentious 2018 congressional elections. Republicans see the issue as one that activates the president's base, which party candidates need to turn out in order to avoid losing the House or Senate.
Trump has pounded Republican leaders in Congress for failing to pass stricter immigration laws -- even as those same leaders have refused to allow votes on popular measures that would protect young immigrants brought to the country as children.
Trump also said he would push for full funding of his proposed border wall; House and Senate budget negotiators offered him only a minimal amount of money this year and sharply limited how it could be used.
Trump insisted that Californians had come over to his side of the immigration debate and wanted both the construction of a border wall and tougher enforcement -- an argument belied by public polls.
"I think a lot of the Democrat politicians don't understand what's going on," he said. "Because it's actually good politically."
Even as he and his guests decried the impact, Trump also repeatedly reminded his audience that illegal border crossing attempts had dropped during his time in office. That posed a messaging conflict as the president sought to fan fears of a swell of unwanted immigrants.
When one local official invoked the need for a border wall by citing thousands of illegal immigrants, Trump interrupted to insist that things were getting better.
"Now, it's reversing," he said, crediting his administration for positive change.
(c)2018 the Los Angeles Times