Faced with a political crisis of his own making, President Trump did something this week that he hates — he publicly backed down.
But abandoning the policy of separating children from their parents at the border has only bought a little time for the administration — perhaps as little as three weeks.
Trump’s new policy, which calls for keeping families together — but in federal lockups for indefinite periods — clearly violates existing court rulings. Administration lawyers flatly said so in court on Thursday. With Republicans in Congress unable to agree among themselves on bills to change immigration law, let along negotiate a deal with Democrats, the policy’s viability depends on convincing federal judges to give Trump an authority they refused to give President Obama just three years ago.
If the judges don’t go along, Trump will be faced with the same dilemma all over again: separate families or return to the policy that he derides as “catch and release.”
A GATHERING STORM, A QUICK RETREAT
The speed at which Trump’s family separation policy morphed from problem to crisis clearly took the White House and GOP leaders by surprise.
Just a week ago, Trump was reveling in a Justice Department report that criticized his nemesis, former FBI Director James B. Comey. And congressional Republican leaders were planning a House vote on immigration legislation that barely touched on the forced separation of immigrant parents from their children.
However, a weekend’s worth of news headlines and television pictures of distraught parents and children locked behind chain-link fences dramatically changed the situation.
By Monday, a backlash had begun to rapidly build, Eli Stokols and Noah Bierman wrote.
Trump tried insistently to blame the problem on the Democrats, saying that government officials were forced by the law to separate families.
But Americans seemed unimpressed with that argument. They had good reason: What Trump said was untrue. Top administration officials, including Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly had openly talked about splitting families as a policy choice the administration had adopted in hope of deterring illegal border crossings.
On Tuesday, as polls began to show overwhelming public opposition to the policy, Republicans in Congress began urgently looking for a way out.
While Trump remained publicly defiant, his aides signaled that White House resolve was cracking. Tuesday afternoon, a White House official told Bierman that Trump might accept legislation reversing his policy.
“The president wants a comprehensive fix,” the official said, “but he is willing to strongly consider legislation that would address the separation issue.”
Some administration officials insisted that the hard line on immigration was a winner for them — strengthening Trump’s standing with his core supporters. And, indeed, the same polls that showed public opposition to the policy also showed support among Trump’s base.
But that was little comfort to Republicans in swing congressional districts, who already fear a wipeout in this fall’s midterm elections, and who, in most cases, need to reach beyond die-hard Trump voters to win their races.
On Wednesday, Trump, clearly angry at the situation, agreed to reverse field.
His aides created an executive order for Trump to sign, allowing him to display his signature to the cameras. But the order was an empty gesture — Trump could have accomplished everything in it with a simple phone call. And it did little to lighten the president’s mood, as he showed in several long, angry comments he made Wednesday and Thursday.
In Trump’s mind, he was being forced to look weak — a mortal sin in his catechism.
“The dilemma is that if you’re weak, the country is going to be overrun with millions of people,” he said during a meeting in the White House Cabinet Room. “And if you’re strong, then you don’t have any heart.”
As the week went on, Trump vented his frustration with repeated references to immigrants who entered the country illegally as criminals, animals and, at one point, an infestation.The language, Jazmine Ulloa wrote, was part of a pattern of using rhetoric about criminality to dehumanize undocumented migrants.
Unfortunately for the White House, the solution his advisors chose — allowing families who crossed the border illegally to stay together, but only by keeping both the parents and the children locked up — solved one problem by creating two new ones.
In the short term, officials at the departments of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services seemed unable to come up with a plan to reunite children with parents. That guarantees a continuing risk for the administration.
In the (very slightly) longer term, the administration can hold families in detention for only 20 days, government lawyers say, pointing to a legal settlement that the government agreed to in the late 1990s and has adhered to since. On Thursday, Justice Department lawyers went to court in Los Angeles to try to get an exemption from that agreement, as Joel Rubin wrote.
The clock is ticking. If the court does not give Trump the relief he has asked for, at the end of 20 days, the administration may have to start releasing immigrant detainees pending their deportation hearings — a practice Trump calls catch and release.
DEMANDING LEGISLATION, THEN KILLING IT
Several times during the week, Trump demanded that Congress pass an immigration bill. But he repeatedly undercut congressional efforts to do so.
House Republicans struggled last week to come up with a plan that they could agree on among themselves. Moderates demanded some solution to the legal peril faced by so-called Dreamers — the young immigrants who came to the U.S. illegally as children. Conservatives denounced as amnesty any plan that would allow Dreamers to become citizens.
On Thursday, the House voted down a hard-line measure the conservatives backed. Then, House leaders postponed a vote on a second immigration bill that they had billed as a GOP consensus effort. Whip counts indicated the bill would fail, Ulloa and Eliza Fawcett wrote.
Early Friday morning, Trump, who had promised to back the leadership bill “1,000%,” killed it, tweeting that Republicans should “stop wasting their time.”
His move fit a pattern: Every time Congress has edged toward passing a bill that would legalize the Dreamers, Trump has backed away. Top advisors, including White House domestic policy aide Stephen Miller, have opposed any move that might be seen by immigration restrictionists as amnesty.
The administration has sued California to try to overturn the state’s so-called sanctuary laws on immigration. On Wednesday, that effort got its first hearing in federal court, and the judge sounded skeptical of the administration’s arguments, John Myers wrote from Sacramento, where the hearing took place.
A MIDTERM WITH A SINGULAR FOCUS
Voter interest in the midterm elections stands at a historic high at this point, and Trump is the top issue for both sides, according to a new survey by the non-partisan Pew Research Center.
The good news for Republicans: As Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report puts it, “It’s not 2006.” Unlike that election, in which highly energized Democrats faced off against demoralized and divided Republicans, the new Pew numbers show enthusiasm on both sides.
The good news for Democrats: They continue to have an edge over the GOP, at just around the level that suggests they could win the House majority in November.
A key question: Will younger women turn out to vote? Women younger than 35 favor Democrats more heavily than older women or men of any age. By large majorities, they also believe Trump doesn’t respect women. But they often don’t vote in midterm elections.
ALL EYES ON THE SUPREME COURT — ONE JUSTICE IN PARTICULAR
This is crunch time at the high court as the justices issue the bulk of their decisions after a year of argument.
Friday, a 5-4 majority delivered a major victory for privacy in the digital age, David Savage wrote. The ruling held that police need a warrant to get location data about a person’s cellphone.
Earlier this week, the court ruled that internet businesses must collect all state and local sales taxes. And the justices refused to rule on partisan gerrymandering, ducking one of the term’s major issues.
The key vote on gerrymandering — and many other issues — belongs to Justice Anthony M. Kennedy. And the biggest issue for the court could be whether he will retire at the end of this term. If he does, we’ll probably find out next week.
CALIFORNIA’S TOP RACES DON’T SEEM LIKE RACES
In the race for governor, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom has a commanding lead over John Cox, according to the latest USC/L.A. Times poll, Seema Mehta and Phil Willon wrote.
And in the race for Senate, Sen. Dianne Feinstein has a big lead over her challenger, Kevin De León, a fellow Democrat, Sarah Wire wrote.
The top of the ticket seems likely to be pretty sleepy, meaning that most of the attention — and money — will go to ballot initiatives and a half-dozen high-profile, competitive congressional races in which Democrats are hoping to flip seats that have long been held by the GOP.
A NEW McCARTHYISM?
One side effect of Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation into Russian efforts to influence the 2016 election: The once-sleepy Foreign Agents Registration Act is now a feared weapon. And, in Washington’s typical fashion, that weapon has been politicized. Evan Halper looked at the latest: Nonprofits wary of being branded “foreign agents”.
Halper also reported that Colorado joined California in the fight to prevent Trump from weakening auto emissions rules
TRUMP AND THE DICTATORS
Trump has lavished Kim Jong Un of North Korea with praise. Victoria Kim reported on one unexpected consequence of the thaw: a budding real estate boom along the DMZ.
But Trump has taken an opposite tack toward Cuba. One year after declaring a tougher Cuba policy, what’s actually changed? Tracy Wilkinson examined the issue.
And, of course, Trump continues to press his trade war with China, despite his praise for President Xi Jinping. This week, the White House threatened to slap tariffs on an additional $200 billion in Chinese goods, Don Lee wrote.
That wraps up this week. My colleague Christina Bellantoni will be back Monday with the weekday edition of Essential Politics. Until then, keep track of all the developments in national politics and the Trump administration with our Essential Washington blog, at our Politics page and on Twitter @latimespolitics.
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