Jules Witcover: The Trump facade crumbles at the border
WASHINGTON — Public outrage over Donald Trump’s heartless corralling of small children from their immigrant parents has finally unmasked his political strategy of fake strength.
After weeks of arguing that the policy was invented by the Democrats and required them in Congress to undo it, Trump did a rare 180. He accepted that he had the power to step in and stop the moral obscenity of his own making — although some lawyers have doubted that Trump’s vaguely worded executive order will reunite families already divided.
His swift surrender under pressure may be the first substantial evidence of a public crack in the wall of blind adherence to his avalanche of lies, intentional misrepresentations and incitements of racial and ethnic discord. It has revealed a vulnerability to public disfavor that up to now Trump has contemptuously brushed aside.
The question now is how likely this political retreat will bring about a new period of accommodation with his critics and foes in both parties, especially in his own Republican club that is well on its way to becoming the Party of Trump. The guessing here is there’s not much chance for change under an authoritarian boss convinced that, whatever challenge confronts him, “Only I can fix it.”
In this case, he “fixed” it by contradicting his own emphatic insistence that the whole warehousing of infants and pre-teen kids at the Mexican border was the Democrats’ doing and could not be undone by executive order. In the end, that was precisely what he purported to do, sans the usual waving of his outsized John Hancock for the television cameras.
The storied Trump recourse to casting major political decisions in the trappings of reality TV, so recently flaunted in the Singapore summit of self-promotion and little substance, was absent this time around. The administration’s messaging machine for once was tongue-tied as the president strove to make the best of his immigration policy backpedaling.
The appearance that the president was willing to enforce his sharp anti-immigration stance on the backs of these innocent children was so clear that even his wife, Melania, herself a legally naturalized citizen, felt drawn into the conversation.
Amid unconfirmed speculation that she personally urged her husband to intervene and halt the herding of small children in federal detention facilities, the fashionable First Lady and mother of a young son agreed to the release of a carefully worded statement nudging him to act.
A spokeswoman reported that Mrs. Trump “hates to see children separated from their families and hopes both sides of the aisle can finally come together to achieve successful immigration reform.” This case was another political showdown in which the adversaries, as in the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, went “eyeball-to-eyeball,” and it was Donald Trump who blinked.
No doubt the fight over American immigration will go on, with this president who doesn’t like to take no for an answer continuing to insist on building his wall along the Mexican border and making the Mexicans pay for it some way or another.
In light of his defeat in this latest showdown with the fate of small kids caught in the middle, is the wall of congressional Republican subservience to the president showing signs of cracking? Life-long GOP loyalist and leading party strategist Steve Schmidt, who ran Sen. John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign, has just quit the party in a torrent of rebellion against the Trump takeover and its moral corruption of old conservative ideals. There’s no certainty it will spread to any substantial degree, but it’s a start.
Jules Witcover’s latest book is “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books. You can respond to this column at firstname.lastname@example.org