The White House on Tuesday escalated its attacks on Democrats for their calls to abolish the federal immigration enforcement agency as Republicans tried to shift the debate from President Donald Trump's widely criticized family-separation policy to border security.
In a rare use of an official Twitter account, the White House targeted two House Democrats, Reps. Earl Blumenauer of Oregon and Mark Pocan of Wisconsin, who announced last week that they would introduce legislation to abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The broadsides came a day after the White House took aim at two potential 2020 Democratic presidential candidates, Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Kamala Harris of California. Warren has called for abolishing the federal agency charged with detaining and deporting undocumented immigrants, while Harris has said it should be reexamined.
Trump suggested this past weekend that the Democratic calls to abolish ICE would hurt the party in the midterm elections because ICE targets violent gangs. In the days since, the White House and the Republican National Committee hammered Democrats as the party tried to turn the issue to the GOP's political advantage.
One senior White House official over the weekend called it "a political suicide march" for Democrats.
In a tweet directed at Blumenauer on Tuesday, the official White House account asked the lawmaker, "why are you supporting something that would protect drug smugglers?"
"You must not know what CBP and ICE really do," the tweet continued. It included a link to a recent press release about the seizure of a large amount of crystal methamphetamine by U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
Blumenauer represents Portland, which has seen some of the most aggressive anti-ICE protests in recent weeks.
In a similar tweet, Pocan was asked why he is "supporting human smuggling."
"You must not know that ICE serves as the leading U.S. law enforcement agency responsible for the fight against it," said the tweet, which provided a link to an ICE Web page about "moving human beings as cargo."
While Trump routinely uses his personal Twitter account to tangle with lawmakers, the White House has been criticized for using official social media accounts for partisan purposes.
The GOP attacks came as Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., on Tuesday joined the growing list of potential 2020 presidential contenders speaking out against ICE. After stopping short of calling for dismantling it last week, Sanders changed course with a tweet that made note of his vote against the agency's establishment in 2002.
"Now, it is time to do what Americans overwhelmingly want: abolish the cruel, dysfunctional immigration system we have today and pass comprehensive immigration reform," Sanders said.
The back-and-forth over ICE marks the second time in as many weeks that Democrats have found themselves divided over their messaging ahead of the November midterms, when they hope to recapture the House and, in a longer shot, the Senate.
Last week, it was a debate over civility in politics that had establishment Democrats such as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York calling for restraint while liberal activists pushed for a more confrontational approach against Trump administration officials.
This week, as cries of "Abolish ICE!" on the left have ramped up, some Democrats are worried that those calls leave members of their party — particularly their potential White House candidates — vulnerable to Republican attacks that they are weak on border security.
"I'm not convinced that calls for the abolishment of ICE while kids are suffering right now down at the border is the right way to go," said Democratic strategist Jim Manley, who served as a longtime aide to former Senate majority leader Harry Reid of Nevada. "There's a real crisis here that you need to address, and all you're doing is giving Republicans a shiny object to distract from what's going on."
Public polling shows Democrats retaining an advantage over Republicans on the broader issue of immigration policy. According to a Quinnipiac University poll released Tuesday, 58 percent of registered voters disapprove of Trump's handling of immigration while 39 percent approve — figures that have fluctuated little from where they stood 10 months ago.
Sixty percent of those surveyed say they disapprove of the way Trump has handled the separation of migrant children from their parents. After an international uproar over his administration's "zero tolerance" policy, Trump reversed course last month and signed an executive order halting family separations.
The outcry over the issue has prompted dozens of lawmakers to make visits to inspect government-run shelters for migrant children. On Tuesday, an official with the Department of Health and Human Services, which is responsible for the shelters, wrote a letter to the chairmen of the Senate and House Judiciary committees stating that the multiple visits have put a strain on the department's staff.
"Nearly 500 work hours have been spent facilitating congressional visits to facilities for more than 70 Members of Congress," Matt Bassett, HHS assistant secretary for legislation, wrote in the letter, adding that "many of these hours would otherwise have been spent" by HHS staff on work related to reunification and the care of children.
Yet as the focus has turned from separations to ICE in recent days, Trump has said repeatedly that he thinks immigration will be a potent issue for Republicans in this year's congressional elections.
In a speech in West Virginia on Tuesday, Trump spent several minutes praising ICE, describing its agents as "tough people" whose work involves "liberating" towns from the grip of MS-13 and other gangs.
"And then I hear Democrats saying, 'We want to abandon ICE.' We're not abandoning ICE, and we're not abandoning our law enforcement. Just the opposite," Trump said.
The RNC was also quick to weigh in, writing in an email that Sanders' apparent move leftward in calling for changes to ICE "should be a glaring sign Democrats have a serious problem on their hands."
The Washington Post's David Weigel and Amy Goldstein contributed to this report.