Trump hears the backlash on separating families, but also applause as he stokes immigration fears
Despite an apparent retreat, the president relishes his role as immigration tough guy
The thing about U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence is that he can keep a straight face while serving the baloney.
And so it was when Pence stood next to Donald Trump Wednesday as the president signed an executive order to end the separation of families entering the country illegally. Pence solemnly said that he and the president believe that the choice between protecting the border and protecting families is "a false choice," and that they're committed to doing both.
In fact, that "false choice" was exactly the choice the president had claimed handcuffed him when he explained his dilemma just 24 hours earlier.
"When you prosecute the parents for coming in illegally, which should happen, you have to take the children away," said Trump.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions hinted at that when he spoke of the consequences of the "zero tolerance" policy that he announced May 7.
"If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you and that child may be separated from you as required by law," he said, speaking to an audience he might have imagined lurking on the other side of the border.
It was a warning meant to horrify and discourage.
White House Chief of Staff John Kelly was blunter when he talked about the deterrent effect of separating families in a CNN interview as secretary of homeland security last year.
"I would do almost anything to deter the people from Central America to getting on this very, very dangerous network that brings them up through Mexico into the United States," he said.
Children to be 'well-cared-for'
Kelly was asked whether that meant he would separate children from their parents. "Yes," he said. "I am considering exactly that. They will be well-cared-for as we deal with their parents."
What they didn't know, apparently, was that the policy would horrify their own people; that Americans would recoil in shock from the images of a bawling child alone among uniformed agents.
That miscalculation weighed more heavily on the administration as each day passed.
Republican voters gave only tepid support to the policy and that was mostly the men. Republican women, independents and Hispanics were all overwhelmingly against it.
And Trump heard the backlash; he heard it from members of Congress in Washington, from the United Nations in New York, from the Pope in Rome and from his wife, Melania, at home.
Ivanka Trump was in the room to witness her father's announcement of the executive order rolling back the harshest part of the policy his team had put in place six weeks ago.
Underestimating the public's reaction was a colossal blunder that was abetted by a president who believes he is immune to political consequences — that he could, as he said in the 2016 campaign, "stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and not lose any voters."
Still the immigration tough guy
But when he spoke about the policy on Tuesday, it was obvious how much he relishes his return to his comfort zone of "immigration tough guy" and how much his audience enjoys him in that role.
"They're not sending their finest," he said of the countries from which the migrants had fled. "Does that sound familiar?" he asked. He was echoing the speech with which he launched his 2015 campaign, the one that characterized Mexicans as rapists, and the audience loved it.
"Remember I made that speech and I was badly criticized? 'Oh, what! So terrible, what he said!'" Trump mocked. "Turned out I was a hundred per cent right, that's why I got elected!" More cheers, more applause.
Of course, Trump will never admit he was forced to climb down from his hubris and flip on separating families, but even the Trump megaphone Breitbart News gets it: "Trump Buckles: Caves to Left-Wing Hate With Exec Order" read the Breitbart homepage Wednesday afternoon.
The climbdown, though a setback, is not a retreat. As the country dives into summer and then surfaces in midterm campaign season, Trump's return to immigration themes is inevitable because his conviction "that's why I got elected" is unshakable.
At the meeting when he announced the executive order to roll back the family separation policy, he riffed on and on about immigration and how tough he needed to be "or our country would be overrun by people, by crime, by all of the things that we don't stand for and we don't want."
And somehow, in between being tough on Latino migrants while having a heart for their families, he also managed to get in what seemed like a dig at Muslims.
"We don't want people coming in from the Middle East through our border, using children to get through the line," he said, stoking a favourite anxiety among his base.
Part of the lesson Trump takes from the past few weeks is that it's not smart to mess with people's children. But another part is that winding up people with fears of immigrant crime waves and immigrant terror still works. Breitbart may judge that he caved this week, but its readers will still have him as their champion.