WASHINGTON — Texas Gov. Rick Perry, fresh from his recent indictment on charges of abusing the powers of his office, told a conservative audience Thursday that the “porous” southern border provides an entry point for Islamic terrorists to strike in the United States.
“Certainly there is great concern that the border between the U.S. and Mexico is unsecure, and we don’t know who’s using that,” the Republican chief executive said at a panel discussion about immigration at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative research center in Washington. “I think there is a very real possibility that they have already used that,” he added, but offered no evidence.
Mr. Perry, who is said to be weighing a second run at the White House after his disastrous, short-lived campaign in 2012, used his keynote speech at the panel to lambaste Democrats and slough off his recent felony charges in a politically charged Texas case that involves his office and a local district attorney.
The charges stem from his call for Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg, a Democrat, to resign after she was convicted last year of drunken driving. When she didn’t, he vetoed a $7.5 million allocation for the public integrity unit of her office. A grand jury indicted him last week on charges of coercing a public servant and abusing his official capacity. He was booked this week, and his unusual mug shot — a tight smile stretched across his face — became an Internet sensation.
His supporters have called the Perry probe a political witch hunt, and it has served as a rallying point. Even some prominent Democrats have questioned the legal basis for going after the governor, who will have been the state’s longest-serving chief executive when he steps down next year, and who has studiously gone about revamping his swaggering, cowboy-booted image in preparation for a possible presidential run.
The discussion Thursday about the exploding immigration crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border ranged from amnesty plans to the effects on the U.S economy. But even the panelists acknowledged that the packed auditorium was probably more interested in Mr. Perry himself. “Have you ever seen anyone look as relaxed and happy in their mug shot as Gov. Rick Perry?” panelist Rich Lowry, editor of the National Review, a conservative political magazine, said before introducing the Texan.
Mr. Perry wasted little time before addressing the charges. “There are a few public officials who have taken issue with an exercise of my constitutional veto authority,” he said. “I am very confident in my case, and I can assure you that I will fight this attack of our system of government. … I aim to defend our Constitution and stand up for the rule of law in the state of Texas.”
He said the case was nothing more than political fodder, citing critical comments from David Axelrod, a former top political strategist to President Barack Obama, and Alan Dershowitz, a prominent liberal legal scholar. “All say that this is sketchy, outrageous, totalitarian and McCarthyite. I agree with them,” Mr. Perry said. “And that’s just on the Democrat side of the aisle.”
Later, in an interview with a Heritage in-house reporter, Mr. Perry referred to “a completely out-of-line indictment by a runaway, abusive prosecutor” and defended the veto that triggered the indictment. He added: “People, go take a look at the video of the D.A., her attitude toward law enforcement, her obvious drunken state that she was in. That individual was going to be in charge of $7.5 million of Texas taxpayer money and the Public Integrity Unit. Not only did I, but I think the vast majority of the people of Texas have lost faith in her.”
The governor did eventually get to the panel’s main topic, though he used the immigration debate more as a vehicle to attack the White House than to lay out a clear border strategy. Noting that Mr. Obama declined his invitation last month to visit the Texas-Mexico border, he said, “To this day, the president has yet to see the facts on the ground at our southern border, even though they are a direct consequence of his policies.”
Rather than shrinking from the public eye since the indictment, Mr. Perry appears to be seeking the limelight. He is planning four political events on a two-day visit to New Hampshire starting today, fueling speculation that he intends to again seek the GOP 2016 nomination.
Mr. Perry’s appearance at the Heritage Foundation immigration forum gave him the opportunity to test foreign policy themes that could resonate in a presidential race. It also appeared to be an effort to help erase memories of his 2012 bid, when his lack of command of the issues and his “oops” flub over the third federal agency that he would close sent his White House aspirations into a tailspin. Foreign affairs — and Iraq in particular — had never been viewed as a Perry strong suit.
“About the last thing we want to think about is more conflict in Iraq, what that might involve,” the governor said. “But we’d better get on top of this crisis by every means necessary. Because events are moving fast, and the price is only going to go up. We’ve come up one of those moments when American action will be decisive, and inaction will be consequential.”
Mr. Perry spoke derisively of the Obama administration’s measured response in Iraq. “This terrorist army must be confronted with overwhelming force,” he said, noting the Obama administration’s limited air strikes until now. “Nothing less than a sustained air campaign to destroy ISIS forces is required,” he said, using one of the acronyms for the Islamic State militants.
“The Iraqi people are up against a terrorist blitzkrieg,” he said. “And even though these killers have seen glimpses of our power and technology, they need to see a lot more of it.”
Hearst Newspapers contributed.