DURHAM, NEW HAMPSHIRE - DECEMBER 16: Republican presidential candidate, former President Donald Trump speaks during a campaign event at the Whittemore Center Arena on December 16, 2023 in Durham, New Hampshire. Trump is campaigning ahead of the New Hampshire primary on January 23. (Photo by Scott Eisen/Getty Images)
Trump repeats anti-immigrant rhetoric at New Hampshire rally
02:13 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

Former President Donald Trump denigrated undocumented immigrants during a Sunday campaign stop in Nevada that marked the latest example of him ratcheting up anti-immigrant rhetoric ahead of the GOP nominating contest kicking off next month.

The front-runner for the GOP nomination stoked fears about migrants coming across the US-Mexico border and pointed to examples of what he said were undocumented immigrants committing violent crimes in the US as he addressed a crowd of supporters in Reno.

In Nevada – which is third on the GOP nominating calendar and also has a large Latino population – he claimed migrants were “invading” the US from prisons and “mental institutions” in other countries and reiterated his promise to conduct the “largest deportation operation in American history.” 

In the final weeks before voting begins, Trump is leaning into the kind of anti-immigrant language that he used when he secured the nomination in 2016 – and facing backlash reminiscent of that campaign. 

The former president’s speech in Reno came a day after he doubled down on language condemned for its ties to White supremacist rhetoric, saying at a campaign stop in New Hampshire that undocumented immigrants were “poisoning the blood of our country.”

His comments Saturday were met with immediate criticism from one 2024 GOP rival, Chris Christie. The former New Jersey governor said Sunday that Trump was “dog whistling” to blame the stress caused by the economy and foreign conflicts “on people from areas that don’t look like us.” 

“He’s disgusting,” Christie said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

Still, even in the face of myriad legal challenges that threaten to complicate the election year, Trump’s lead among GOP base voters remains strong, and the flurry of travel to early contest states like Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada underscores an aggressive effort by the former president’s team to maintain that polling edge.

Trump on Sunday outlined many of the steps he says he would take to expand his administration’s hardline immigration policies, including shifting “massive portions of federal law enforcement to immigration enforcement” and moving “thousands of troops currently stationed overseas to our own southern border.”

The former president has vowed to reinstate and expand travel bans he first implemented toward several Muslim-majority countries and African nations in 2017. Trump’s potential second term plans also include rounding up undocumented immigrants already in the US and placing them in detention camps to await deportation, CNN has reported.

The Nevada appearance comes on the heels of campaign stops in Iowa and New Hampshire, with a return trip to Iowa planned for Tuesday.

Trump told his supporters Sunday to “pretend we’re losing,” as he sought to ensure a strong turnout in the state’s February caucuses.

“Pretend we’re tied. Pretend we’re losing by three. You got to do this, because you know, the worst thing is everyone thinks, ‘Oh, what do we have to vote for? Trump is killing them.’ And then bad things happen,” Trump told his supporters gathered at a convention center in Reno.

Trump leads the GOP primary field by around 40 percentage points nationally, according to the latest update to the CNN Poll of Polls. In the new average, Trump holds 61% support to 17% for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and 11% for former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley.

The former president is hoping to blunt any momentum his main rivals for the GOP nomination may have picked up in recent weeks. Haley scored a key endorsement last week from Gov. Chris Sununu in New Hampshire, home to the first-in-the-nation Republican primary. DeSantis, who is counting on a strong Iowa performance to boost his campaign, has shown a new aggressiveness to take on Trump over the past week, lobbing attacks during a CNN town hall on his record as president and his unpredictable rhetoric.

Meanwhile, the super PAC backing DeSantis, Never Back Down, is in turmoil after shedding a fourth senior official this month. Chief strategist Jeff Roe resigned Saturday over comments made by the key fundraising group’s chairman and interim CEO, Scott Wagner, relating to the high-profile departures of three other officials earlier in December.

DeSantis and Trump will be among several Republican candidates competing in Nevada’s party-run caucuses on February 8. Haley opted for the state-run presidential primary on February 6. But only the caucuses will be used to determine the allocation of delegates to next year’s Republican convention.

Trump’s stop in Reno also comes days after a Nevada grand jury indicted six people who had acted as fake electors in a scheme intended to overturn Biden’s 2020 election win. Trump himself has been criminally charged over his efforts to overturn the 2020 election and continues to falsely claim the election was stolen from him and spread conspiracy theories about voter fraud.

On Sunday night, the former president expressed sympathy for those Nevada fake electors, including Michael McDonald, the state GOP chairman, whom he called “a tremendous guy” who “gets treated so unfairly and he loves this country and he loves this state.” Trump also praised by name several other fake electors, who are set to be arraigned Monday.

A federal judge overseeing Trump’s 2020 election interference case last week temporarily paused all procedural deadlines, which could delay the start of his March trial. The development was a welcome one for Trump and his legal team, who have been pushing to delay proceedings until after the November election.

The election interference case is one of several in which Trump is a defendant. He faces 91 criminal charges across four separate cases and has pleaded not guilty to all of the charges.

This story and headline have been updated to reflect Trump’s remarks in Nevada.

CNN’s Eric Bradner, Kit Maher, Jeff Zeleny, Aaron Pellish and Steve Contorno contributed to this report.