WASHINGTON (AP) -- Calling the shots as his West Wing clears out, President Donald Trump sees his hard-line immigration stance as a winning issue heading into a midterm election he views as a referendum on his protectionist policies.
"You have to stand for something," Trump declared Tuesday, as he defended his administration's immigration policy amid mounting criticism over the forced separation of children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border. The chorus of condemnation includes Democrats, as well as Republicans, who are increasingly worried that reports about bereft children taken from their parents could damage the GOP's chances in November.
Still, Trump believes that his immigration pledges helped win him the presidency and that his most loyal supporters want him to follow through. He made a rare trip to Capitol Hill late Tuesday to meet with GOP legislators and endorse a pair of bills that would keep detained families together, among other changes, but he remains confident that projecting toughness on immigration is the right call, said five White House officials and outside advisers who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
"It's amazing how people are surprised that he's keeping the promises he made on the campaign trail now," said Trump political adviser Bill Stepien.
While the White House signaled Trump may be open to a narrow fix to deal with the problem, the president spent the day stressing immigration policies that he has championed throughout his surprise political career. He has resisted calls to reverse the separation policy, saying any change must come through Congress.
In a speech to a business group earlier Tuesday, Trump said he wanted to see legislation deal with family separation, which, he said, "We don't want." He also emphasized border security and again made the false argument that Democrats are to blame for the family separation problem. Said Trump: "Politically correct or not, we have a country that needs security, that needs safety, that has to be protected."
Several White House aides, led by adviser Stephen Miller, have encouraged the president to make immigration a defining issue for the midterms. And Trump has told advisers he believes he looks strong on the matter, suggesting that it could be a winning culture war issue much like his attacks on NFL players who take a knee for the national anthem.
Former Trump senior adviser Steve Bannon said the president is emphasizing the policies that brought him to the White House.
"I think this is one of his best moments. I think this is a profile in courage. This is why America elected him," Bannon said. "This is not doubling down, it is tripling down."
Still, Trump, a voracious watcher of cable news who is especially attuned to the power of images, appeared to acknowledge later Tuesday that the optics could be doing damage.
During his closed-door meeting with lawmakers on the Hill, Trump said his daughter Ivanka had encouraged him to find a way to end the practice, and he said separating families at the border "looked bad," according to several attendees.
"He said, 'Politically, this is bad,'" said Rep. Randy Weber, R-Texas. "It's not about the politics. This is the right thing to do."
Trump's immigration standoff comes as he escalates his nationalist trade moves, imposing new tariffs on imports and threating more. With few powerful opposing voices remaining in the West Wing, Trump is increasingly making these decisions solo. Some key advisers have left, and chief of staff John Kelly appears sidelined.
Republicans, particularly those in more moderate districts, are worried they will be damaged by the searing images of children held in cages at border facilities, as well as by audio recordings of young children crying for their parents. The House Republicans' national campaign chairman, Ohio Rep. Steve Stivers, said Monday that he's asking "the administration to stop needlessly separating children from their parents."
Other conservatives also raised concerns, but many called for Congress to make changes instead of asking Trump to directly intervene. Ralph Reed, chairman of the Faith & Freedom coalition of evangelical voters, added to the drumbeat to end the child separation policy Tuesday, calling on Congress to pass legislation that would end the process as part of a broader immigration overhaul.
But asked if the border policy was bad for Trump politically, Reed suggested core supporters remain on the president's side. He said the group's members are "more than willing to give the president and his administration the benefit of the doubt that this is being driven by a spike in people crossing the border, a combination of existing law and court decisions require this separation, and the fact that the Democrats refused to work with the administration to increase judges so that this can be dealt with more expeditiously." Trump on Tuesday mocked the idea of hiring thousands of new judges, asking, "Can you imagine the graft that must take place?"
Worried that the lack of progress on his signature border wall will make him look "soft," according to one adviser, Trump has unleashed a series of tweets playing up the dangers posed by members of the MS-13 gang — which make up a minuscule percentage of those who cross the border. He used the loaded term "infest" to reference the influx of immigrants entering the country illegally.
As the immigration story becomes a national flashpoint, Trump has been watching the TV coverage with increasing anger, telling confidants he believes media outlets are deliberately highlighting the worst images — the cages and screaming toddlers — to make him look bad.
The president has long complained about his treatment by the media, but his frustrations reached a boiling point after he returned from his Singapore summit with North Korea's Kim Jong Un to face news reports questioning his negotiating skills. He complained to one adviser that the media had not given him enough credit after the summit and was continuing to undermine him on immigration, according to a person familiar with the conversation but not authorized to speak publicly.
On Tuesday, Trump argued that sticking by his policies was a winning political strategy as he took a fresh shot at Democrats.
"They can't win on their policies, which are horrible," he said. "They found that out in the last presidential election."