WASHINGTON — President Trump has vanquished Republicans and Democrats with his mastery of the media and disregard for facts. With denials and by shifting blame to victims, he has survived allegations of sexual abuse and infidelity. He has turned swaths of the GOP base against the FBI and Department of Justice.
But Trump’s pugilistic style and misdirections appear to be failing him as he struggles to dodge responsibility for the latest political crisis to rock the White House: stories and images of immigrant children wailing and locked in chain link detention pens that are essentially cages after they have been forcibly taken from their parents.
Accused of inhumane actions, the president and his team have cycled through myriad explanations for the disturbing sights and sounds from the southern border.
Here’s a sampling:
1.) It’s God’s will. 2.) It’s the Democrats’ fault. 3.) President Obama basically did something similar. 4.) It’s an intentional zero tolerance policy to discourage migrant families from coming here. 5.) It’s a backhanded way of forcing Congress to pass immigration legislation. 6.) It’s not really a policy at all. 7.) Can we go back to talking about the Witch Hunt?
In the space of a week, as the number of children separated from their parents has swelled to more than 2,000 and the federal government prepares to open more children’s shelters, the Trump administration has offered falsehoods, obfuscation, and spin to justify a man-made humanitarian crisis where none existed before.
All the while, the administration is contending with a sustained public relations and political tornado. On Monday, the news outlet ProPublica released a surreptitiously recorded audio of children screaming for their parents at a federal facility.
For days prior, media outlets have shown an image of a young girl crying as her parents are detained. There are photos of children kept in enclosures that resemble kennels. Even the border patrol has asked some in the media not to use the word “cages” to describe the chain-linked holding areas, according to “CBS This Morning,” because it finds the word “cages” to be uncomfortable.
Trump’s staunchest allies, including his wife, the religious community, conservative commentators, and former employees, have rejected many of the explanations — leaving the president and his top Cabinet officials in a lonely spot.
On Monday, the White House briefing was delayed by four hours so White House press secretary Sarah Sanders would not have to face the media alone to answer questions about the new policy.
Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen was flown back from an event in New Orleans to also take reporters’ questions. She said Trump, in removing children from the custody of parents who committed a crime by entering the United States illegally, is merely enforcing laws that were ignored by previous administrations.
“Congress alone can fix it,” Nielsen said, rejecting the idea that the administration could go back to its previous posture of leaving families intact.
For critics, and Trump allies looking for cover, the shifting explanations weren’t convincing, particularly since previous presidents have used their discretion not to strip children from their parents.
“They are doing something that is indefensible, so it’s hard to explain,” said Peter Wehner, who has worked in the last three Republican administrations, including as a speechwriter for George W. Bush. “They are throwing everything against the wall and seeing what might stick.”
The Trump administration is not tethered to the truth, he noted, which opens broad avenues previous US leaders would never travel.
“It’s a post-truth presidency,” said Wehner. “People are just throwing out whatever they feel like. It doesn’t have to correspond with reality.” He had a simple piece of advice: “If it’s indefensible, you’ve got to quit defending it.”
Even Trump’s former communications director, Anthony Scaramucci, expressed his own bafflement with the White House lines of defense.
“You can’t simultaneously argue that family separation isn’t happening, that it’s being used as a deterrent, that the Bible justifies it, and that it’s @TheDemocrats fault,” explained Scaramucci via a post on his Twitter feed. “@POTUS is not being served well by his advisors on this issue.”
Democratic strategists have also been watching in shock.
“For 18 months they’ve been putting lipstick on a pig. They just found out they can’t put lipstick on a dumpster fire,” said Jesse Ferguson, who was a spokesman for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.
“It makes it clear how much of a disaster this policy is when you see that they can’t even agree with themselves over a defense for it,” Ferguson added.
Part of the discomfort is rooted in the fact that the various explanations crumble under scrutiny.
Trump himself has insisted that Democrats are to blame for his administration’s decision to separate families. Trump is, perhaps, referring to the 1997 Flores Agreement, a legal settlement that determined migrant children should not be imprisoned and was settled after a lengthy court process during the Clinton administration.
But none of the presidential administrations since then has determined that it required families to be split up.
Trump may also be referring to the inability of Democratic minorities in the House and Senate to pass a law preventing the families from being splintered.
“CHANGE THE LAWS!” Trump tweeted Monday, as if he was some kind of casual observer to the pain that his Cabinet officials and agencies are inflicting on thousands of people.
But, as Trump is aware, Democrats are in the minority in both chambers. Moreover, other parts of Trump’s own government have taken responsibility for the new policy — at times. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Nielsen, both Trump appointees who serve at the pleasure of the president, have described the new policy as an intentional tool to discourage migrants from making the treacherous journey north to the United States.
“We have to do our job. We will not apologize for doing our job. We have sworn to do this job,” Nielsen said Monday.
Sessions, on April 6, spelled out the initiative in a memo describing the new “zero tolerance” policy at the southern border.
“To those who wish to challenge the Trump administration’s commitment to public safety, national security, and the rule of law, I warn you: Illegally entering this country will not be rewarded, but will instead be met with the full prosecutorial powers of the Department of Justice,” Sessions wrote.
Last week, Sessions cited Romans 13 in the Bible to justify the policy, saying God has ordained the laws of government for reasons of keeping order. But even the Trump administration’s closest allies are having trouble accepting any of the justifications being offered.
“The government should know how bad this looks and how innocent children are actually suffering,” said former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly, on Twitter. “The Trump administration will not win on this one and it should reverse course today.”
Even first lady Melania Trump noted discomfort with the policy. She is spearheading a #BeBest campaign to protect children from bullying, and she said in a prepared statement that she “hates to see children separated from their families.”Annie Linskey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @annielinskey.