WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump, less than 24 hours after a 29-year-old Uzbek national allegedly drove a truck down a bike path and killed at least eight people, blamed Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and Democrats for immigration policies he claims allowed the suspect to enter the United States.
In a series of tweets on Wednesday morning, Trump turned his focus from comforting those impacted in New York and focused on advocating for the tougher immigration laws that defined his 2016 campaign.
“The terrorist came into our country through what is called the ‘Diversity Visa Lottery Program,’ a Chuck Schumer beauty,” Trump tweeted. “I want merit based.”
Minutes later, he added: “We are fighting hard for Merit Based immigration, no more Democrat Lottery Systems. We must get MUCH tougher (and smarter).”
Trump’s initial Twitter response to the attack labeled the attacker a “very sick and deranged person” and offered his “thoughts, condolences and prayers to the victims and families of the New York City terrorist attack.”
Trump later tweeted that he was ordering his Department of Homeland Security to “step up our already Extreme Vetting Program.”
It was not clear what program the president was referring to. Reached Tuesday night, DHS referred all questions on the “vetting” order to the White House, which did not respond to questions.
Soon after Trump tweeted Wednesday morning, Schumer responded with a tweet of his own: “I guess it’s not too soon to politicize a tragedy.”
Schumer also accused the president of “politicizing and dividing America” and urged him to focus “on the real solution – anti-terrorism funding – which he proposed cutting in his most recent budget.”
Trump’s decision to address immigration policy hours after the terrorist attack is markedly different than the tact the White House took after a shooter in Las Vegas opened fire on a concert last month, killing 58.
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders, asked about gun control policy the day after the shooting in Las Vegas, dismissed the idea of talking about policy so soon after a shooting.
“We haven’t had the moment to have a deep dive on the policy part of that,” Sanders said. “We’ve been focused on the fact that we had a severe tragedy in our country. And this is a day of mourning, a time of bringing our country together, and that’s been the focus of the administration this morning.”
Pressed on why Trump brought up the travel ban hours after shootings in Orlando, Florida, and San Bernardino, California, Sanders added at the time, “I think there’s a difference between being a candidate and being the president.”
The diversity visa has been a point of contention for years.
The 50,000 visas, distributed by random selection among countries where there is a low rate of immigration to the U.S., were originally designed to diversify the pool of immigrants to the U.S.
The visas offer immigrants green cards, permanent legal residence and a path to citizenship.
Republican Sens. Tom Cotton and David Perdue have introduced a bill, endorsed by Trump, that would eliminate the diversity lottery and certain categories of family-based green cards, and then would transform the remaining employment-based visas into a point system that favors heavily highly skilled, highly educated, English-speaking immigrants.
But while there is consensus around needing to reform the process, limited support exists even within the GOP for Cotton and Perdue’s bill.
Schumer was a key shaper of the 1990 legislation that created the program, but also played a lead part in the 2013 Gang of Eight bill that that passed the Senate on a bipartisan basis and included removing the diversity lottery program.
The bill would have moved those visas elsewhere in the system and introduced a merit system that took into account multiple factors like family and work skills.
Sen. Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican who has been an ardent critic of Trump, noted in a tweet Wednesday that the Gang of Eight bill, had it been signed into law, would have done away with the diversity visa program.
The Cotton-Perdue bill would roughly halve the number of green cards overall per year, a point of contention for many Democrats and Republicans alike, and wouldn’t easily allow for low skilled immigrants to come to the US permanently, another sticking point for many.