Analysis

Children's distress may help Trump bargain for his border wall

Many of the kids who’ve been taken from their families are under the age of four, according to New York Times data. Too young, obviously, to understand that when their parents crossed the border illegally they were stumbling into the White House’s calculus for the midterm elections.

It's about showing his base just how tough he can be over immigration

Children interact with members of the Presbyterian church in Sunland Park, U.S., at a new section of the border wall on the U.S.-Mexico border on May 3. President Donald Trump is determined to show he's tough on immigration. (Jose Luis Gonzalez/Reuters)

The Trump White House tacitly acknowledged Monday that it needed a more coherent argument for why government agents are snatching children from their parents and holding them in cages.

So it rolled out Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen to make that case, even though Nielsen, just 24 hours earlier, had denied that such a thing was even happening. "We do not have a policy of separating families at the border," she tweeted. "Period."

What she meant, apparently, is that the government does not separate families seeking asylum if they go through the proper channels. If they arrive at designated ports of entry, she told reporters, they can stay together.

If they don't — if they cross over the border illegally — it's a different story, just as Attorney General Jeff Sessions promised that it would be.  In May, Sessions warned that he had put in place a "zero tolerance" policy for illegal entry that could mean children would be separated from their parents. He was crystal clear that it was a Trump administration policy.

A woman who lives in the U.S., hugs two children, who live in Mexico, during the Hugs Not Walls event on the border between Ciudad Juarez, Mexico and El Paso, U.S., on May 12. Trump officials can't keep their story straight on who's responsible for separating children from their parents. (Jose Luis Gonzalez/Reuters)

But even that truthful statement was problematic because the president essentially disavowed it. On Friday Trump said "I hate the children being taken away," and denied it was his administration's policy.

Blaming the Democrats

He said the problem was a law made by the Democrats. "The Democrats have to change their law — that's their law," he said.

That doesn't fit the facts either.  First, because of what Sessions said and second, because the president, who has found every way possible to roll back Barack Obama's policies, surely knows he has the power to stop border agents from breaking up families if that's what he wants to do.

In any case, the next day Trump's domestic policy adviser Stephen Miller volleyed back in the New York Times: "It was a simple decision by the administration to have a zero tolerance policy for illegal entry."

But much of the country is aghast at the images of kids in cages. Even Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz  is introducing an emergency bill to keep illegal immigrant families together. And it's never been clear how much stomach Trump really has for reckoning with the consequences of his own actions.

Claim that children are 'actors'

Ann Coulter, the shock columnist who already has Trump's ear, tried to put some steel in his spine Sunday by declaring the distressed youngsters are, in fact, a bunch of phonies who are just play acting.

"These child actors weeping and crying on all the other networks 24/7 right now — do not fall for it, Mr. President," she said to Trump via Fox News Sunday night. "I get very nervous about the president getting his news from TV."

President Donald Trump was avowing Monday that the U.S. would not be a 'migrant camp.' (Leah Mills/Reuters)

Not that long ago it was possible, and arguably wise, to ignore Coulter. But then we learned that her book, Adios America, had profoundly shaped how Trump thinks about immigration as an election tool.  It was Coulter who came up with Donald Trump's infamous line about Mexicans in 2015, "They're rapists."

She's right about one thing, though, the president does get his news from TV, and Fox News is his favourite. So Coulter's warning  — "Don't fall for the actor children" — likely did not fall on deaf ears.

The callousness of the comment is beside the point. The point, Coulter is reminding the president, is that he should stay focused on the political fight and not be distracted by the humanity or inhumanity of the policy.

Defining moment for the presidency

Until the last couple of days it was still possible to believe that the administration had allowed what's happening on the border to develop because of their own ineptitude; that the left hand simply didn't know what the right hand was doing.

But now it looks as though Trump set it up to be a defining moment for his presidency. He got where he is largely by promising to be tougher on immigration than anyone else would be, and six months ahead of  midterm elections he has manufactured a crisis to prove it.

Protesters hold signs against the government separating asylum-seeking parents from their children outside the Federal Detention Center in SeaTac, Wash., on June 9. It's not clear yet how much stomach Trump has for pushback on the issue. (Alan Berner/The Seattle Times/Associated Press)

"The United States will not be a migrant camp, and it will not be a refugee holding facility, won't be," he said yesterday. "A country without borders is not a country at all." It was familiar stuff to anyone who listened to him during the 2016 campaign.

This week Republicans will consider a pair of immigration reform bills either of which would probably need Democratic support to pass and both of which include funding for a border wall. The bills would also fix the practice of separating families at the border, so the outrage of the current moment makes it that much harder to vote against them.

It comes back to the border wall

If either one passes, Trump will have kept his promise on the wall. If neither passes he will blame the Democrats for not caring about families. Either way he will campaign on the wall again.

Many of the kids who've been taken from their families are under the age of four, according to New York Times data. Too young, obviously, to understand that when their parents crossed the border illegally they were stumbling into the White House's calculus for the midterm elections.

Children have their breakfast at the Vina de Tijuana AC migrant shelter in Tijuana, Mexico, on April 28, before preparing to cross the border. Children have been separated from their parents at the border under the 'zero tolerance' policy. (Hans-Maximo Musielik/Associated Press)