The Shameless Fakery of Trump’s Retreat on Family Separations

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Big signature, little hands. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. Today, Trump’s retreat on family separations, Michael Bloomberg’s $80 million gift to Democrats, and the emerging schisms at Fox.

After repeatedly saying that he could not single-handedly end family separation at the border, Donald Trump has signed an executive order that ends the practice, replacing it with indefinite detainment of parents and children together. Is this the first major retreat of his presidency?
It is a major retreat, but only a rhetorical retreat. When talking heads on CNN and MSNBC say Trump has caved, they have irrefutable evidence to back it up: a kaleidoscope of video clips of him and his White House cohort claiming that “only Congress” could end this humanitarian horror show when in truth it could have been ended by a presidential phone call. Indeed, even the executive order Trump signed, with its Freudian misspelling of the word “seperation” in its title, wasn’t needed. It was a prop intended to wipe the images of caged children from the screen. And a favorite Trump prop: He loves few things more than displaying his signature, whether on executive orders or pardons, to try to spin the illusion that he is governing. Not to mention the added bonus that the big signature distracts the audience from the small fingers he uses to wield the pen.

But back in the real world, this crisis is far from resolved. Only the same idiots who bought Trump’s post-summit tweet that there’s “no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea” would think so. Some 2,300 children remain separated from their parents with no clear prospects for reunification. There will be legal and bureaucratic chaos, accompanied by further human suffering, as ill-equipped government agencies now move to incarcerate families intact under the still-standing Trump–Jeff Sessions–Stephen Miller “zero-tolerance” policy. Already today the Trump administration has been forced to temporarily suspend migrant family prosecutions because of the case overload. Next up: There will be bloody new battles in the civil war among Republicans in Congress as they once again try and fail to find an overall “fix” for American immigration policy with the Election Day countdown clock ticking. It can never be forgotten that Trump is no outlier in his own party: While roughly two-thirds of Americans oppose his Draconian immigration measures, nearly 60 per cent of Republicans approve of them and expect their representatives in the Capitol to obey their Dear Leader.

What’s also ahead are more ugly pictures of the type that finally pushed Trump to about-face and sign that order. (Trump has not for a second indicated he gives a damn about the children in those pictures; he only cares about the pictures’ political fallout.) Thus far the government has done an impressive job of suppressing photographic evidence of what has been going on inside these internment camps, especially photos that might show infants, toddlers, or girls in those so-called “tender age” facilities. But if the Abu Ghraib photos can get out, these will too, soon enough, as will more audio and video recordings. There will be more images added to the mix when “zero tolerance” incarcerations overwhelm a jerry-built (at best) hodgepodge of already overrun refugee detention centers that in the summer’s blazing heat may start to make the New Orleans Superdome of Katrina notoriety look like a Holiday Inn. The Texas Tribune is even now reporting a long history of incidents of physical and sexual child abuse in existing immigrant shelters.

If anything remotely good came out of this debacle, it’s that for the first time Trump was forced to recognize that he cannot always refute or suppress visual evidence of his duplicity as easily as Fox News can. Starting with his Day One insistence that photos of his unimpressive Inaugural Day crowds were a fake-news hoax, he’s assumed that Americans will believe him over what they see with their own eyes. His base still does of course — Ann Coulter called the wailing refugee children “child actors” — but Independents and those few wavering Republican voters (about 10 percent are down on Trump) do not. That’s why even the likes of Ted Cruz called for an end to splitting up families. (It’s a measure of how creepy Cruz is that on those rare occasions when he says something you agree with, you for a second find yourself questioning your own beliefs.)

Another small but useful side effect of this crisis has been to expose just how deeply the psychosis of compulsive lying has spread through the administration’s ranks. The Homeland Security secretary Kirstjen Nielsen destroyed her reputation this week as her mentor John Kelly had before her with her ludicrous purported ignorance of both the origins of the separation policy and its horrendous human fallout on the border. As Aaron Blake of the Washington Post pointed out, Nielsen was already a serial liar, having previously publicly claimed that she didn’t know Norway was a white-majority country when Trump said he preferred Norwegian immigrants to those from “shithole countries” and having testified before Congress she was unaware of the American intelligence finding that Russia had tried to boost Trump in the 2016 election.

Nielsen is a product of the Georgetown School of Foreign Service and University of Virginia School of Law, and was once thought to be among the “adults” in Trump’s ranks. She’s now so dug into the alternative reality of his bunker that it never occurred to her that a Mexican restaurant might not be the ideal choice for dinner after her grotesque press conference. Then again, even as the tape of refugee children crying for their parents was playing out 24/7, United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley decided to announce that America was pulling out of the U.N.’s Human Rights Council and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo released a statement honoring World Refugee Day. To paraphrase a favorite line from a classic American film comedy, Preston Sturges’s The Palm Beach Story, irony is not only dead but decomposed.

Former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg has committed $80 million to help Democrats take control of the House in November. How does his money change the midterm forecast?
Bloomberg’s commitment is significant not because it changes any midterm election forecast; after all, his spending to further the cause of gun control has had limited effects. But it is a strong and highly welcome departure from the feckless evenhandedness with which too many centrist politicians and centrist and conservative pundits have on one hand deplored Trump and on the other stopped short of calling for voters to cast ballots for Democrats as the most practical way of derailing him. (A classic example of this cowardly disingenuousness, as always, comes from Mitt Romney, who recently revealed that he chose to write in Ann Romney for president in 2016.)

Yes, the Democrats often leave much to be desired, but we are in a crisis that threatens our country. Moderate Republican politicians and opinion columnists who talk about rebuilding the GOP with John Kasich or whoever’s left once Trump is gone are not just daydreaming but sidestepping any concrete action to deal with the present-day threat to America posed by a lunatic in the White House. While Washington is burning, and threatening to take the world with it, they would rather preen and advertise their own evenhanded civic virtuousness. Bloomberg has now decidedly left that fatuous club, and so has Steve Schmidt, the longtime GOP campaign operative who this week took the step of announcing his support for a Democratic electoral wave on the grounds that the Democratic Party is “the only party left in America that stands for what is right and decent and remains fidelitous to our Republic, objective truth, the rule of law and our Allies.” You can’t argue with that, even if some Democrats and Democratic policies, often with good reason, drive you berserk.

Internal divisions have come to the surface at 21st Century Fox, as show creators including Modern Family’s Steve Levitan and Family Guy’s Seth MacFarlane speak of “disgust” at working under the same umbrella as Fox News. Is this a short-term squabble or a sign of larger things to come?
No one knows, but Judd Apatow deserves credit for cheerleading this stampede of public statements in Hollywood. He has called for a complete boycott of all Fox products including “movies, TV, sports, business, books.” That will never happen of course, but tarnishing the Fox brand as a whole could over time hit the Murdoch family, which, in Apatow’s words, “has made billions lying and manipulating our citizens for personal financial gain” even to the point of “supporting the kidnapping of children” at the border.

The Times has pointed out that to some extent this protest becomes moot once either of Fox’s two corporate suitors, Disney and Comcast, wins the bidding war to buy most of the Murdochs’ entertainment assets. But even after that sale, Murdoch will likely retain not just Fox News but the Fox broadcast network, which will likely continue to broadcast Family Guy among other shows run by liberals like MacFarlane. (Modern Family is aired on ABC.) If Trump is still president by the time that sale is final — possibly a good year away — this just might get bloody.

The Shameless Fakery of Trump’s Retreat on Separations