Yesterday, Donald Trump took the bold and decisive step of signing an executive order against himself.
Specifically, against the separation of migrant families at the southern border that was occasioned by his administration’s “zero tolerance” policy toward illegal immigration.
“Thank you @POTUS,” first daughter and White House advisor Ivanka Trump tweeted, “for taking critical action ending family separation at our border.” Yes. Thank you, daddy, for mopping up the humanitarian crisis you yourself created for political gain. I so love when you do that.
Still, it is noteworthy, even unprecedented, that President Trump has surrendered on an issue of such vital importance to his core supporters. Nor does it seem likely that it was First Lady Melania Trump or de facto First Lady Ivanka who talked him down.
More probably, the president could smell what was on the breeze; a CNN poll published on 18 June showed 67% of Americans disapproving of family separations. Senate Republicans, in a rare display of moral courage, unanimously denounced the practice. Even Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), an immigration hardliner and famously the most hated man in Washington, slithered out of his pit to register his disgust.
Viewed from any angle, this policy is a disaster. A disaster for its underage victims, chiefly, but also for the United States, its government, its ruling Republican party, and its president.
In the first place, if anyone expected a hard line stance to deter undocumented immigrants, that hope proved futile. Leaked Homeland Security documents show that the number of people caught illegally crossing the border actually rose by 5% in May — from what was already characterized as an historic high in preceding months.
Of course, family separations were never sincerely intended to hold back the tide. As President Trump himself made abundantly clear, he was using caged children as bargaining counters against Democrats (and Republicans) in the House of Representatives who have refused to fund the building of a border wall. With the November midterms looming, Trump is desperate to unite his base by making headway on this keynote campaign promise.
The president tried to play chicken with Congress with thousands of helpless migrant children in the back seat. He swerved, and in so doing, perhaps crashed into the limits of his power. If there’s one silver lining here, it’s the demonstration that even a recalcitrant, ineducable child-Tsar like Trump can be restrained by the preponderance of public opinion.
If there are two silver linings, the other is the shambolic, humiliatingly inept management of this policy by the administration. It really is a wonder these people found their way out of their mothers’ wombs.
As The Washington Post has observed, Trump and his minions offered a rainbow of contradictory explanations and excuses for their callous insistence on separating children from their parents.
The president’s chief of staff, John Kelly, and the Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, both described separations as a deterrent against undocumented immigration. When asked if that was the case on Monday, Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen dismissed the very idea as offensive.
White House aide Marc Short characterized the separations as government policy; Nielsen said, before Congress, “We do not have a policy to separate children from their parents.”
Presidential advisor and surrogate Kellyanne Conway said she didn’t want anybody to “use these kids as leverage.” But when Sessions first announced the ‘zero tolerance’ prosecution of immigrants that started all this, he explained the rationale: “Congress has failed to pass effective legislation that serves the national interest—that closes dangerous loopholes and fully funds a wall along our southern border.” Sounds like a classic hostage situation to me.
Finally, and to no one’s surprise, the president has contradicted himself over and over and over again. He said he felt illegal immigrants must be prosecuted. Then he said he was forced into doing it by the Democrats. He was against a ‘moderate’ immigration reform bill. Then he was for it. And, of course, he couldn’t end the separations by executive order until he spontaneously did so yesterday afternoon.
Make no mistake: the executive order does not end the crisis. It may, in fact, be illegal. Trump wants to keep up the prosecution of as many migrants as possible without estranging parents from children. How you ‘keep families together’ when mom and dad are in prison is another question.
Besides, there is no plan to reunite the 2,000 children who were already removed from their parents’ care. The executive order will halt future separations for the time being, and two pieces of remedying legislation are being debated. But there’s every possibility we’ll be back to square one in a month.
Perhaps some small comfort can be taken in the knowledge that the chaos of the president’s mind, his obdurate lack of strategy, is contagious. It has spread throughout the administration, hamstringing all attempts to explain what the hell this policy was — other than repugnant.
As Eugene McCarthy observed, “The only thing that saves us from the bureaucracy is its inefficiency.”
I fear that will be cold comfort indeed for children who will go to sleep tonight without their parents to tuck them in.