From the moment images of children being separated from their parents bubbled up in the national consciousness late last week, it became abundantly clear that something had to be done, and quickly.
Regardless of how we got to this point – a decision by the Trump administration to put in place a “zero-tolerance” policy regarding people trying to enter the country illegally – the images (and the audio) demanded action. Tearing kids away from parents, even parents who are trying to cross into the country illegally, gets beyond dry policy debates. It’s an emotional issue – about who we are as a country and who we want to be.
And yet, President Donald Trump and his administration spent the better part of a week insisting that his hands were tied (they weren’t) when it came to ending the crisis at the border. He called on Congress to act. He sent out the head of the Department of Homeland Security to insist that “Congress alone can fix it.” Then on Wednesday afternoon – even as the House was preparing to vote on an immigration bill on Thursday – Trump suddenly announced he would be signing “something” that would end the separation of families at the border.
Later Wednesday, he signed an executive order to keep parents and kids together.
“We’re signing an executive order. I consider it to be a very important executive order. It’s about keeping families together, while at the same time being sure we have a very powerful, very strong border,” Trump said.
If your head is spinning at that turn of events, you aren’t alone.
In fact, you probably have that feeling in common with every Republican in Congress. Trump’s announcement that he will sign an order to deal with family separation runs directly counter to what his White House was saying just hours earlier. The message from the White House went from “You guys need to fix this” to “Ah, hell, I’ll just do it” in the blink of an eye.
That whipsawing came as the result of a fundamental miscalculation by Trump and his allies: That staking out a “tough” stand on the need to harden the border would counteract any agita caused by the “zero-tolerance” policy at the border. What Trump missed, and he reportedly acknowledged this in his huddle with House Republicans on Tuesday night, was the power of the images that were coming from the border. Images of kids crying as their parents were arrested and taken away. Audio of kids crying for their parents. Human suffering in words and pictures. Tough talk didn’t hold a candle top what people were seeing on their TVs.
That miscalculation was bad. But it was compounded by another strategic decision by Trump: To cast the border crisis as something that not only wasn’t his fault but that he was powerless to fix – neither of which were true.
“The Democrats are forcing the breakup of families at the Border with their horrible and cruel legislative agenda,” Trump tweeted last Friday. “Any Immigration Bill MUST HAVE full funding for the Wall, end Catch & Release, Visa Lottery and Chain, and go to Merit Based Immigration. Go for it! WIN!”
On Monday morning, Trump tweeted: “It is the Democrats fault for being weak and ineffective with Boarder [sic] Security and Crime. Tell them to start thinking about the people devastated by Crime coming from illegal immigration. Change the laws!”
By that night, Trump’s administration had doubled down on its powerlessness and blamelessness – via a disastrously bad press conference by Kirstjen Nielsen, the head of the Department of Homeland Security.
“Congress and the courts created this problem and Congress alone can fix it,” Nielsen said. “Until then, we will enforce every law we have on the books to defend the sovereignty and security of the United States. Those who criticize the enforcement of our laws have offered only one countermeasure: open borders, the quick release of all illegal alien families and the decision not to enforce our laws.”
Ahem. Cough. Nervous collar tug.
Facts, for once, got in the way of that argument. Time and time again over the past five days, it was pointed out that the zero-tolerance policy – coupled with the fact that children cannot be held in a federal prison – was at the root of this crisis. And that just as easily as Attorney General Jeff Sessions put the zero-tolerance policy in place, Trump could rescind it, allowing law enforcement officials discretion as to who they referred for prosecution.
Caught in the middle of Trump’s wild swerving? Republicans in Congress, who saw their already-complicated efforts to pass some sort of comprehensive immigration bill dealing with DACA and border wall funding made that much more difficult by Trump’s demand that they solve the family separation policy for him.
Trump added to that chaos repeatedly, first by suggesting at the end of last week that he would veto the compromise plan backed by Speaker Paul Ryan and the GOP leadership, and then on Tuesday night when he endorsed both the compromise bill and its conservative alternative – providing more than enough cover for members of the House Freedom Caucus to oppose the compromise legislation.
Then, just hours after Ryan, in his weekly press conference, promised that Congress was going to solve or at the very least mitigate the border crisis with legislation that would get a vote on Thursday, Trump cut the legs out from that effort by announcing he was just going to take care of it despite the fact that he had said he couldn’t take care of it less than 24 hours before.
The whole thing – from beginning to (presumed) end – was a debacle for Republicans trying to build momentum in advance of the November election. The party just spent the better part of a week looking feckless amid pictures of children crying on our southern border. And, in the end, the President – and the leader of their party – completely reversed course from his previous rhetoric, leaving congressional Republicans holding the bag.
This was never going to be an easy issue for Trump, stuck as he was between his calls for toughened border policies and the pictures of children being taken from their parents. But the protracted process, the attempted obfuscation of facts, the blame game, the jerking around of Republicans in Congress – all made it much, much worse for Republicans.