the national interest

Why Trump Is Using Hostage Tactics on Family Separation

President Donald Trump speaks on immigration laws before the National Space Council meeting on June 18, 2018, in Washington, D.C. Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

The Trump administration is holding the children of migrants hostage, in both the literal and the figurative sense. Literally: The children are taken from their parents in order to leverage the behavior of adult migrants. And figuratively: The administration is leveraging the suffering of these families in order to pressure Democrats into capitulating to the administration’s policy demands. President Trump, reports Axios, “views the issue as leverage, and will try to get funding for a border wall or other concessions for a rollback of the policy.”

The hostage strategy arises from a profound internal division within not only the Republican Party but the Trump administration itself. The administration originally enacted a policy of separating child migrants from their parents in order to deter those families from entering the country. Chief of Staff John Kelly defended family separation last month as “a tough deterrent.” Also last month, Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen laid out the tough policy: “If you are single adult, if you are part of a family, if you are pregnant, if you have any other condition, you’re an adult and you break the law, we will refer you. Operationally what that means is we will have to separate your family.” To justify this powerful new deterrent, the White House “interpreted a 1997 legal agreement and a 2008 bipartisan human trafficking bill as requiring the separation of families,” an interpretation neither of the previous two administrations supported.

Unsurprisingly, the policy of separating children from their parents has proven unbearably cruel in practice. Not everybody within the Republican Party or even the administration itself is still willing to defend its own handiwork. And so the administration’s public explanation of this policy toggles between three mutually exclusive positions.

One, the policy exists and is good (“It was a simple decision by the administration to have a zero tolerance policy for illegal entry. Period,” says Stephen Miller.) Two, the policy does not exist. (“We do not have a policy of separating families at the border. Period,” insists Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen.) And third, the policy does exist, and is bad, and the Democrats are to blame (“I hate the children being taken away. The Democrats have to change their law — that’s their law,” declared President Trump.)

A recent poll finds the public opposed to child separation by a 56/37 percent margin, but Republicans somewhat in favor (46/32 percent). Another finds even more stark differences — the public opposes family separation by a 66/27 percent margin, but Republicans favor it, 55/35 percent.

One can see the effect of these internal tensions playing out in Breitbart, the heart of the ethno-nationalist media. Rather than forcefully defending Trump’s policy, it is instead deflecting the attention of its audience to ancillary targets in the hated “liberal elite.” One story attacks the news for using the word cages to describe the chain-link enclosures for children. There are stories mocking the responses of Rosie O’Donnell and James L. Brooks. It is all blame-deflection. None of them musters a straightforward explanation of why the Trump policy has wrought some kind of positive change.

In the face of this confusion within Trump’s base, his stance of using the children as hostages makes a certain amount of sense. The posture allows him simultaneously to distance himself from his own position while conscripting Democrats into responsibility to end what he himself has wrought.

Hostage-taking — the figurative kind, not the literal version — is different than normal political negotiation. In a standard bargain, the two sides trade a thing one side wants for a thing the other side wants. Say, Republicans want a capital-gains tax cut, and Democrats want to give medical care to children whose parents can’t afford it, and the two sides combine them into the 1998 Balanced Budget Act. Hostage-taking doesn’t work that way. Rather than trade something you want for something I want, the hostage-taker demands that you offer concessions to prevent an outcome neither side wants.

The last time Republicans engaged in high-profile hostage-taking took place over a series of showdowns over the debt limit, a statutory requirement that Congress approve increases in debt for spending it has already authorized. Failing to lift the debt limit would default on the national debt, with permanent and potentially deep economic consequences, perhaps including a global economic meltdown. A cohort of extremist Republicans insisted they would not lift the debt limit, and further argued the debt limit did not even need lifting. Business elites knew this argument was absurd, and feared the consequences of turning the once-automatic process of lifting it, perhaps accompanied by ritual speeches by the opposing party scolding the president’s lack of fiscal responsibility, into a high-stakes showdown.

Republican leaders papered over the gap within their party by using hostage tactics. They neither advocated lifting the debt limit nor refused to lift it. Instead, they insisted the debt limit needed to be raised, but also demanded President Obama submit to a list of otherwise unacceptable Republican policies in order for Republicans to lift it.

An outcome in which the debt limit was raised and Republicans got concessions on spending, taxes, health care, or something else was one all Republicans would like. It allowed the party’s leaders to straddle the issue, assuring financial markets they wouldn’t risk economic calamity while also assuring their own hard-liners they wouldn’t go along with lifting the debt ceiling. Conservative sophists lined up behind this strategy, insisting the Republican method was a completely normal negotiation. Indeed, to this day even anti-Trump conservative intellectuals remain furious at the Obama administration for describing their methods as hostage-taking.

Of course, Obama did eventually figure out how to defeat this tactic, and the method was pretty simple. You refuse to negotiate with the hostage-taker. Trump wants to paper over his internal divisions by getting Democrats to give him something in return for ending a policy he can’t defend. The negotiations themselves obscure the entire source of responsibility. If Trump wants to end family separation, he can and will. If Democrats pay him off for taking children literally hostage, Trump will keep taking more hostages.

Why Trump Is Using Hostage Tactics on Family Separation