As President Donald Trump and his administration try to weather one of the most damaging weeks of his presidency, they’ve been casting about for a topic to change the subject — and seem to have settled on the brutal murder of Mollie Tibbetts, a college student in small town Iowa.
Tibbetts had been missing for a month before her body was found in a cornfield Tuesday, and Fox News had been covering the case extensively until the discovery. In addition to its wall-to-wall coverage on Fox News, the conclusion to the grisly case made it amenable to the Trump administration’s hard line on immigration: Tibbetts was murdered by an undocumented immigrant.
As Tuesday’s Michael Cohen and Paul Manafort bombshells dropped, Trump and his top lieutenants seized on the tragedy to change the national narrative.
Vice President Mike Pence tweeted about the murder Tuesday afternoon while the world waited for Cohen’s hearing where he would plead guilty to eight counts and implicate the President in campaign finance criminality.
“We commend the swift action by local, state, & federal investigators working in Iowa in apprehending an illegal immigrant, who’s now charged with first-degree murder,” he wrote. “Now, justice will be served. We will never forget Mollie Tibbetts.”
Former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski tweeted around the same time. “We MUST stop illegals from coming to our country and killing innocent people – this is non negotiable,” he captioned a story about Tibbetts’ death.
In the aftermath of the news, as reporters chomped at the bit to ask questions about the Cohen and Manafort trials, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders made the murder one of her primary points as she opened up a rare press briefing Wednesday.
“The nation has watched for over 30 days as local, state, and federal officials have searched for Mollie, a rising sophomore at the University of Iowa,” she said. “Sadly, the individual believed to be responsible for the murder is an illegal immigrant, making this an unfortunate reminder of why we need to strengthen our immigration laws.”
Trump himself then joined in the spin, tweeting a video on Wednesday.
“A person came in from Mexico illegally and killed [Tibbetts],” he said in the video. “We need the wall, we need our immigration laws changed, we need our border laws changed, we need Republicans to do it because Democrats aren’t going to do it.
Some of Tibbetts’ grieving family members have voiced their objection to the blatant politicization of the young woman’s slaying.
“I don’t want Mollie’s memory to get lost amongst politics,” Tibbetts’ aunt Billie Jo Calderwood told CNN. “It’s not about race, it’s about people joining together to do good.”
But for Trump, the shift to an illegal immigration focus—in the Tibbetts case and outside of it—has proved a move he likes to make.
Though the GOP initially planned to run in the midterm elections on their tax bill and the robust economy, Trump has muddied the message discipline by repeatedly choosing to talk about illegal immigration instead.
Ever since the campaign, he’s brought up the wall at nearly every rally he’s had. He hosted a public event for the families of people slain by undocumented immigrants. He likes talking about MS13 and accusing Democrats of being weak on borders.
The discovery of Tibbetts’ body came on a day that the Trump administration desperately needed a distraction, and they used it repeatedly. But based on Trump’s actions so far, it will be far from the last time the President and his party leverage incendiary stories about undocumented immigrants to either deflect damage or rile up their voters for the midterms.