Why Trump was forced to back down on family separation policy

Image: President Trump Signs Executive Order Ending Family Separations At B
In issuing an executive order suspending the family separation policy, Trump tried to cauterize a self-inflicted political wound. Copyright Win McNamee Getty Images
Copyright Win McNamee Getty Images
By Jonathan Allen with NBC News Politics
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Analysis: For a president who loves to dig in when he's criticized, a stunning about-face.


DULUTH, Minn. — Maybe President Donald Trump was right when he boasted that he could walk down Fifth Avenue in New York shooting people and not pay any political price.

But his desperate scramble to distance himself from his own "zero tolerance" family-separation policy shows there is a point around the nexus of political sensitivity and shame where he will change his own behavior.

The president denies that he was forced to back down, but make no mistake: Trump was pushed into abandoning his policy of separating children from their families at the U.S.-Mexico border. He created it, defended it in dishonest terms and then suspended it under pressure.

There is no evidence he believes the policy was wrong — when he tweeted about the need to have compassion, he put "heart" in quotation marks — but it was clearly causing pain for him and his allies. When he pointed to reasons for eliminating the policy, he zeroed in on appearances: "I didn't like the sight or the feeling of families being separated."

"The Republicans want security and insist on security for our country. We will have that at the same time we have compassion and want to keep families together," Trump said at the White House. "I'll be signing something in a little while that will do that."

In issuing an executive order suspending the policy, Trump tried to cauterize a self-inflicted political wound. It remains to be seen whether that will work or if the policy created an infection with long-lasting consequences for him and his allies.

Either way, it was a stunning about-face for a president who loves to dig in when he's criticized. But few Republican soldiers wanted to get into the trenches with him on a moral and political crisis of his own making.

When it looked like he was holding small children hostage for policy and political gain — to force Congress to approve his broader immigration agenda, deter future migrants from coming across the U.S.-Mexico border and deliver on his immigration crackdown promise to his base — typically lockstep-loyal members of his own party balked.

They revolted because they found the policy revolting.

"We should never play with the lives of these children," Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said Wednesday.

And they knew it was a political loser in the midst of a midterm election run, because two-thirds of Americans — and more than two-thirds of independent voters — opposed the policy, according to a Quinnipiac poll.

Even though roughly nine in 10 Republicans approve of the job Trump is doing, only 55 percent favored the policy. Religious leaders, including some in the evangelical community at the core of Trump's political base, condemned the administration's actions.

Ivanka Trump told her father he had to do something, the president told House Republicans Tuesday night.

But there was nothing accidental about the policy. Breaking up families was a tactical decision.

For months, his lieutenants bragged about their gambit to discourage illegal immigration by tearing children from the arms of their parents. While that may have seemed at one time like a stroke of Machiavellian genius deep inside the bowels of the West Wing, the rest of the country cringed amid the images and sounds of children separated from their parents.

Then again, it was clear in interviews before a Trump rally in this mining city along Lake Superior Wednesday that Trump's base liked the original policy more than the president's decision to suspend it.

"I don't agree with that," Pauline Kastner, 58, of Little Falls said when told about the executive order. "Another criminal, can they stay with their children? Is there a place in prison for their children to go and stay?"

But she said she believes Trump must know what he's doing in pursuing a deal.


"It's all about negotiation, so if he's got to give a little on this to get the wall to totally stop it, you have to give a little bit to get a lot," she said.

Fifty-nine-year-old Jolie Lahlum, who traveled to the rally from the Twin Cities area, said she also backed the zero tolerance policy, but is fine with Trump's decision to suspend it because that may shift public attention.

"This will be an opportunity to shut down the liberal media who are only trying to make things look bad for him and now they won't be able to," she said. "They are trying to find an alternative story that is anti-Trump. Just like it was Russia, Russia, Russian, then it was Stormy, Stormy, Stormy, now its kids, kids, kids."

While the initial policy may have helped Trump in some corners of the country — and the president himself has plenty of time recover politically elsewhere — his allies in Congress are feeling tremendous pressure from angry constituents.

As the executive order proves, that was unnecessary pain. He could have unilaterally reversed himself at any time. Moreover, he's hung those who endorsed the policy out to dry by changing course.


Hours earlier — and for weeks before that — Trump had insisted only congressional action was acceptable. But that wasn't going to happen anytime soon.

Even if the House can pass one of the broad immigration overhaul bills he endorsed Tuesday night — a border-wall-sized "if" — all indications are neither is going anywhere in the Senate.

Over the past few days, that chamber has generated nearly as many ideas for fixing the separation crisis as it has members.

And Trump's decision to act alone at least temporarily removes the pressure he'd sought to put on Congress to give him an immigration bill that builds a border wall, cuts down on legal and illegal immigration and protects undocumented people who were brought to the country illegally as children from being deported.

Still, Trump administration officials are insistent that Congress must eventually provide a permanent fix for the problem created by the president's zero-tolerance policy.


"We look forward to, you know, Congress playing a big role in this," Attorney General Jeff Sessions said at the Capitol after urging conservatives to vote for a broader House immigration bill. "We have a lot of things need to be done, can only be done by Congress."

That is, Trump is still searching for a place to fix blame both for a policy that backfired and for a solution that could deeply anger his base.

Some would say the mirror is the right place to end that search.

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