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Why Trump is digging in on separating families at the border

Updated 9:23 AM ET, Tue June 19, 2018

(CNN) - Logic suggests that the White House, under crushing political pressure, would be forced to back down on its hardline immigration policy amid outrage over searing depictions of kids separated from their parents at the southern border.

But while the swirling political crisis over the "zero tolerance" approach to undocumented migrants might convince a conventional White House to seek a way out, this administration is so far digging in. It is sticking to a strategy of falsely blaming Democrats and past administrations for a practice that it decided to adopt and could change anytime it wanted to.

"The United States will not be a migrant camp and it will not be a refugee holding facility," President Donald Trump declared on Monday.

A climbdown on this issue would represent more than a huge embarrassment for the President. It would undermine his political image and philosophy and require him to admit he's wrong and to temper instincts that force him to counterattack.

He would risk alienating base voters who prize his strongman image on one issue above all -- immigration -- and are more inclined to believe that people who cross the border illegally get what they deserve than to react with compassion to reports by media outlets they disdain.

Among those reports Monday came one of the most haunting moments to come thus far in the immigration debate with the release of ProPublica audio recorded last week inside a US Customs and Border Protection detention facility, where children separated from their parents can be heard sobbing. At one point, a traumatized child can be heard calling for "Daddy."

Whether that could sway the President must be weighed against the certainty that a reversal would dilute the Trump mythology that underwrote his rise as a political figure. Giving in to criticism from all the living first ladies, or the United Nations, or Washington Republicans like Arizona's Sen. John McCain, would mean bending to the kind of internationalist, traditional establishment forces his entire political project was built to destroy.

Trump goes to Capitol Hill on Tuesday, where his congressional allies spent Monday trying to find some kind of legislative solution to the border crisis, though many Republicans -- even those who've supported the President in the past -- say Trump can end the family separation issue with a simple phone call.

Loopholes

Mercedes Schlapp, the White House director of strategic communications, offered potential White House flexibility Tuesday when she said that Trump was ready to discuss a standalone bill on ending the separations being authored by Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz.

"We are looking into the legislative text on the Cruz bill," she told reporters.

Life had been tough for administration officials forced, unlike Trump, to undergo questioning Monday and make policy arguments that could not match the emotional storm stirred by the separations.

"Separating parents from children is not a policy that we want to pursue. At the same time, letting children and parents come across the border ... illegally, is not a policy either," Marc Short, Trump's White House director of legislative affairs, said on CNN's "The Situation Room."

White House press secretary Sarah Sanders did nothing to dispel the notion that Trump is using the separations as leverage to force Democrats into caving on his plans to reshape the immigration system when she rejected the idea of standalone legislation on separations.

Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen tried and failed to quell the public relations disaster by flying back from New Orleans for the White House press briefing.

Nielsen blamed "loopholes" left open by Congress and previous administrations and doubled down on the administration's false contention that it has no option under the law but to funnel people who come across the border illegally into the criminal justice system -- a designation that forces authorities to separate children from their parents while they are in custody.

Nielsen's briefing was more tempered than previous administration efforts to explain the situation, but the fact that she, and the President, are trying to blame it on Democrats showed that even they don't want to own the consequences.

And at times, Nielsen seemed to lack sensitivity to the anger and empathy that have been triggered over a weekend of heart-rending news coverage and that prompted Colleen Kraft, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, to describe the separations on CNN as "government-sanctioned child abuse."

Nielsen said conditions in facilities where separated children are kept are good, though she ignored the emotional and humanitarian needs of kids cut off from their parents.

"We give them meals and we give them education and we give them medical care. There are videos. There are TVs," Nielsen said.

'This has to stop'

The administration's defense on Monday failed to keep pace with the accelerating politics of the issue, as even some of its allies eyed a grim midterm election environment or made their own moral calls on the practice of separation.

"This has to stop," said Cruz, who is up for re-election in November.

"We should keep children with their parents. Kids need their moms. They need their dads," said Cruz, who is introducing a bill that will mandate that families are not separated.

Another Republican who often sides with Trump, South Carolina's Sen. Lindsey Graham, said, "Americans are pretty decent folks. They don't like illegal immigration, they want to do it right. But they're moved by the fact that families are being separated and we've got to find a better way."

In another sign of the subtle politics of the issue, Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, who is on a tightrope in a re-election race in West Virginia, where Trump won overwhelmingly in 2016, criticized the President.

"That's the most inhumane enforcement I've ever seen in my life," said Manchin. "The American dream and hope of the world, where'd all that go?"

Still, Trump may believe he has political grounds to stick to his guns.

A new CNN poll Monday showed that while the President had a 59% disapproval rating on immigration, 58% of Republicans favored the new policy toward undocumented immigrant families on the southern border. And 81% of respondents who approve of Trump also give his immigration policy high marks.

Given that this is a presidency almost exclusively rooted in efforts to secure Trump's base, it might not be surprising if the President looks at such numbers and decides his own political interests -- as distinct from the wider Republican Party's -- augur no course correction.

Over dizzying months of busted conventions, political outrages and assaults on the normal protocol of the presidency, Trump has often confounded predictions that finally he would be forced to mitigate his approach inside America and toward the rest of the world.

It would be ironic if immigration, the issue that powered his rise to the White House, were also the one that forced him finally to moderate his political character. But no one should hold their breath.


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