Analysis

Trump hears the backlash on separating families, but also applause as he stokes immigration fears

Underestimating the public's reaction to separating families was a colossal blunder for a president who believes he is immune to political consequences. But Trump shows no inclination to give up stoking fears about immigrant crime waves as a political strategy.

Despite an apparent retreat, the president relishes his role as immigration tough guy

U.S. President Donald Trump has backed down on separating families. But stoking fears about immigration remains a favourite strategy. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

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.

Immigrant children housed in a tent encampment under the 'zero tolerance' policy by the Trump administration are shown walking in single file at the facility near the Mexican border in Tornillo, Texas, on June 19. (Mike Blake/Reuters)
The plain truth is that the Trump administration considered the breaking of families to be one of the features of its policy on illegal migrants. It was not regrettable collateral damage; it was part of the point. We know that because the administration made clear it considered the threat of taking children from mothers to be useful as a deterrent to further migrants.

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."  

So they all knew what they were doing and why they were doing it.

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.  

Trump speaks to reporters about signing an executive order on immigration policy with Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and Vice-President Mike Pence at his sides in the Oval Office of the White House on June 20. (Leah Milllis/Reuters)

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.

It has been a terrible thing for the families torn apart, and some of them, it is becoming frighteningly clear, may never recover, may never be brought back together again.

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."

Immigration advocates from the Border Network for Human Rights march to protest the administration's 'zero tolerance policy' on immigration in El Paso, Texas, on June 19. (Mike Blake/Reuters)

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."

Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, right, speaks while White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, left, and Commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection Kevin McAleenan, look on during the daily briefing in the White House on June 18. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press)

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.

About the Author

Keith Boag

Washington Correspondent

One of the CBC's premier political reporters, Keith Boag is currently based in Washington, D.C., following stints in Los Angeles and on Parliament Hill in Ottawa.