If the Trump administration’s original decision to separate families whose adults were arrested on the border was a political disaster and a policy fiasco, its retreat from that ledge has been, if possible, even more messed up. We are long accustomed to Trump’s ability to contradict himself and his hirelings at the drop of a hat, so the rapid devolution of his position on family separations from “Hell yes!” to “It’s the Democrats’ fault” to “Congress has to fix it” to “I fixed it” wasn’t that surprising. But he really needs to learn to pace his wild changes of direction so that the vast army of federal bureaucrats can keep up with him.
This clearly wasn’t happening today. Politico tried to summarize the chaos:
President Donald Trump’s administration was gripped by confusion on Thursday as agencies struggled to implement his executive order halting the separation of migrant families at the U.S. border.
At the heart of the problem was uncertainty about how to begin detaining families together in jail custody and whether the government would make any effort to reunite parents still in the U.S. with children currently held in separate shelters or foster facilities.
It seems virtually none of the people responsible for implementing Trump’s executive order got any kind of advance notice it was coming. And more importantly, the practical implications of continuing a “zero tolerance” policy without separating kids from parents being prosecuted weren’t worked out at all. That became obvious today when border-control officials and the Department of Justice got into a public conflict with the Washington Post in the middle:
The U.S. Border Patrol will no longer refer migrant parents who cross into the United States illegally with children to federal courthouses to face criminal charges, a senior U.S. Customs and Border Protection official told The Washington Post on Thursday …
“We’re suspending prosecutions of adults who are members of family units until ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) can accelerate resource capability to allow us to maintain custody,” the official said….
A spokeswoman for the Justice Department, Sarah Isgur Flores, denied that prosecutions would be suspended.
“There has been no change to the Department’s zero tolerance policy to prosecute adults who cross our border illegally instead of claiming asylum at any port of entry at the border.”
As puzzled readers tried to figure out who exactly would be prosecuted without referrals from the Border Patrol, and where it would happen if not in federal courthouses, other issues festered:
The White House continues to view the order as a temporary measure designed to buy time until Congress takes action.
If that means some sort of comprehensive immigration bill that includes a “family separation” fix, like the bill voted down today in the House or the bill the House is likely to vote down tomorrow, then the White House is lying or hallucinating. As the president himself admitted in a tweeted tirade this morning, such legislation is doomed in the Senate. And if the idea is some sort of narrow “fix,” Trump had better start sending clear and consistent signals to the Hill about what, exactly, he will sign.
The one thing that is clear is that Trump continues to want to brag about “zero tolerance” to audiences like those at his Duluth MAGA rally last night without taking responsibility for the human consequences of his actions, or the problems associated with implementing his imperial edicts.
The nagging question is whether he’s just indifferent to the chaos he creates, or it’s part of a really devilish plan to keep his critics off-balance. Politico noted there was an earlier incident involving many of the same people that felt a lot like this one:
One of the people familiar compared the process to Trump’s January 2017 travel ban, which was signed the week after his inauguration and triggered widespread chaos at airports across the U.S. as customs officials struggled to understand who must be detained.
And guess who was at or near the controls in both cases? That’s right: top presidential policy adviser and arch-nativist Stephen Miller. In his celebrated recent profile of Miller, McKay Coppins said that he and former White House counselor Steve Bannon gloried in chaos:
One of his first acts on the job was to work with then–chief strategist Steve Bannon in crafting an executive order that banned travel to the United States from seven majority-Muslim countries. The hastily written order contained no guidance on implementation, and soon after Trump signed it—on a Friday afternoon one week into his presidency—airports across the country were plunged into chaos. Hundreds of travelers were detained, civil-rights lawyers descended, and protesters swarmed. To many, the televised disarray was proof of failure. But according to Michael Wolff’s account of the Trump administration’s first year, Fire and Fury, the architects of the ban were tickled by the hysteria; Bannon (who was Wolff’s main source) boasted that they’d chosen to enact the disruptive measure on a weekend “so the snowflakes would show up at the airports and riot.” They counted the anger on display as a political win.
So maybe yesterday’s chaos on the border and in Washington was deliberate and calculated, or maybe it was the result of incompetence and inconstant leadership. What it was not, in any sense, was responsible.