The Trump administration has used the official White House twitter account to attack two Democratic senators over their opposition to the president’s immigration policy – salvoes that may mark an early skirmish in the 2020 presidential battle.
While Mr Trump frequently uses his own Twitter account to take on various targets, it is rare for administrations to make partisan attacks using government entities.
Yet, that is what happened when the White House falsely claimed Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris – two potential candidates for 2020, who have criticised the president on immigration – had voiced support for deadly gangs such as MS-13.
“@SenKamalaHarris, why are you supporting the animals of MS-13? You must not know what ICE really does. Here is a link to help you out,” the White House tweeted, while posting a press release about two deportations carried out by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
Later, the White House tweeted, saying: “@SenWarren, why are you supporting criminals moving weapons, drugs, and victims across our nation’s borders? You must not know what ICE really does.”
The tweets come amid growing criticism of ICE from Democrats who blame the organisation for ruthlessly enforcing new immigration rules that have resulted in the separation of migrant families at the US-Mexico border and the criminal charging of anyone apprehended trying to enter the country illegally. Amid international outcry, Mr Trump issued an executive order to halt families being split up.
Meanwhile, over the weekend, many thousands of people marched in a number of cities across the country, voicing opposition to Mr Trump’s policies and signalling support for those migrants who have been separated and scattered across the country at different detention centres.
A number of Democrats believe ICE should be shut down and replaced by another federal agency. While some in the party are concerned campaigning on such a policy would leave Democrats vulnerable to allegations that they were weak on matters of national security, others believe ICE’s record is too toxic for people to trust it.
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York said the US should “get rid” ICE. “Start over,” she tweeted. “Build something that actually works.” New York Mayor Bill de Blasio echoed her, saying: “ICE is broken, it’s divisive and it should be abolished.”
Meanwhile, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who beat Democratic congressman Joe Crowley in a much-watched New York primary last week, also ran on a platform of abolishing the agency.
Ms Harris, from California, was quick to hit back at the White House tweet, citing her record as as a prosecutor who had gone after Central American gangs that were originally established in US jails.
“As a career prosecutor, I actually went after gangs and transnational criminal organisations,” Ms Harris tweeted. “That’s being a leader on public safety. What is not, is ripping babies from their mothers.”
She added: “No matter what they say, I will never stop fighting to hold Trump and his administration accountable and I will never stop speaking out against their immoral policies like separating parents from their families.”
Lily Adams, Ms Harris’s communications director, raised the issue of whether the Trump administration was breaching ethics rules by using a White House Twitter feed for partisan attacks.
“The White House is using government taxpayer resources to target a senator with complete and utter falsehoods,” Ms Adams tweeted.
Sayu Bhojwani, founder of New American Leaders, a national organisation that helps immigrant leaders run for public office, told The Independent she suspected Mr Trump was targeting Ms Warren and Ms Harris as he was scared by the public response they had generated with their opposition to his policies.
“He is trying to rile up his base,” she said. But she said the president was also displaying the anxiety and fear felt by many white men, as more women and people of colour have been demanding and seizing power. “These are strong women who have very often been his worst enemy.”
Larry Sabato, Professor of Politics at the University of Virginia, said this was not the first time the administration had used the White House Twitter feed to attack Democratic senators.
“The 2020 campaign unofficially began the night Trump won in 2016. It is well underway as of now,” he said. “Trump knows when he attacks a Democrat, it helps him or her with the party base. My enemy’s worst enemy is my best friend.”
He added: “Trump would like nothing better than to run against Warren or Harris. They are liberal women. And either one could be portrayed as Hillary II.”
Mr Trump has fiercely defended ICE, and embraced Democratic opposition to the agency. He told Fox News over the weekend he believed the position would ultimately hurt Democrats in midterm elections.
“Well I hope they keep thinking about it, because they’re going to get beaten so badly,” he said. “You know ICE, these are the guys that go in and take MS-13, and they take them out. Because they’re much tougher than MS-13, like by a factor of 10.”