“When men are most sure and arrogant they are commonly most mistaken, giving views to passion without that proper deliberation which alone can secure them from the grossest absurdities.” ~ David Hume
No one told Donald Trump. He may have made a grossly absurd mistake. Men who are most sure and arrogant do that, and he does give view to passion. He is all passion, all the time. But a mistake is still a mistake, and as the New Yorker’s Jonathan Blitzer explains, he did know better:
Two months into Donald Trump’s Presidency, John Kelly, then the Secretary of Homeland Security, publicly confirmed that his department was considering separating immigrant parents from their children at the border, as a way of discouraging families from crossing illegally. It was a radical idea, one that past Administrations had considered and then dismissed as too extreme and too complicated. After coming under intense criticism from the press, human-rights advocates, and members of Congress, Kelly backed off from it. But the idea persisted.
A few months later, in August, 2017, a group of officials at the Department of Homeland Security gathered to brainstorm new ways to toughen immigration enforcement. Among those leading the discussion was an official named Gene Hamilton, a former aide to Jeff Sessions, the Attorney General, and a close ally of Stephen Miller, the President’s chief immigration adviser. “Hamilton told us that over the next few days we’d need to generate paperwork laying out everything we could do to deter immigrants from coming to the U.S. illegally,” a person who attended the meeting told me.
Memos were drafted outlining a range of possible policies; one of them was separating parents from their kids at the border. “All the memos sucked,” the person said. “The outcome was predetermined. We didn’t have time to work out any of the policy differences. Some of the ideas didn’t make sense. Some were illegal, and some, like separating kids, were just immoral.”
Many of the proposals, including the one involving family separation, “got bogged down in the clearance process, because of how difficult and controversial it was,” the person said. And yet every few months the idea would resurface in discussions. “It would rear its head again.”
They knew better, but they eased into this anyway, and then it was a done deal, which they claimed wasn’t any big deal:
At first, the Trump Administration denied there was a formal family-separation policy in place. Then, as the evidence mounted, it claimed that it was only trying to protect immigrant kids from smugglers and imposters posing as their guardians. In February, the ACLU sued the government for separating a Congolese mother from her seven-year-old daughter, for more than three months, after they had arrived in San Diego seeking asylum. The mother was held in California, while her daughter was sent to Chicago. The Department of Homeland Security claimed that it had doubts about whether the woman was truly the child’s mother, yet it waited four months to administer a DNA test. In April, the New York Times reported that more than seven hundred families had been separated since October, including more than a hundred children under the age of four. A government spokesperson responded, “DHS must protect the best interests of minor children crossing our borders, and occasionally this results in separating children from an adult they are traveling with.”
Last month, the pretense fell away completely. On April 6th, Jeff Sessions and Kirstjen Nielsen, the head of Homeland Security, announced a zero-tolerance policy for immigrants at the border. Anyone who didn’t cross the U.S. border at an official port of entry would be criminally prosecuted, even if they were seeking asylum, and those travelling with their children would be separated from them. The policy was now official, and the Administration acknowledged its rationale: it was separating families to discourage others from travelling to the United States illegally.
What they knew was mistake from the beginning was now official policy, and no one quite knew how that happened, except everyone knew how that happened:
I asked the person who had attended the DHS meeting with Gene Hamilton what had changed since last year, when the Administration was reluctant to publicly embrace the family-separation policy. The person pointed to the President. In the early days of Trump’s Presidency, migrants were anxious about how harsh his policies might prove to be. For a few months, illegal border crossings declined – a fact that Trump bragged about and took personal pride in. But by the end of the year the numbers had returned to levels roughly consistent with where they’d been just before he took office. Trump has complained that U.S. immigration laws are “pathetic” and riddled with “loopholes,” including, among other things, the “catch and release” of asylum seekers. He’s also held Nielsen personally responsible for the rise in migration from Central America. “What you’re seeing now is the President’s frustration with the fact that the numbers are back up,” the person told me. “The only tool the Administration has now, in the absence of legislation, is to make life miserable for people.”
That is the only tool that’s left, but the best rule for dealing with a mistake is to keep at it. Donald Trump is all passion, all the time. Admit nothing. People will love that. Fred Astaire knew that – “The higher up you go, the more mistakes you are allowed. Right at the top, if you make enough of them, it’s considered to be your style.”
Trump does have style, like it or not, and Ornette Coleman once said this – “It was when I found out I could make mistakes that I knew I was onto something.” Trump is onto something, and Miles Davis once said this – “Do not fear mistakes. There are none.”
Donald Trump certainly believes that, and there’s Jimi Hendrix – “I’ve been imitated so well I’ve heard people copy my mistakes.” Most Republicans are with Trump, copying his mistakes, although this one bothers them a bit. Perhaps Donald Trump can tap-dance and improvise his way out of this. There are no mistakes. There’s only style.
As the Washington Post reports, Trump chose style:
The Trump administration’s move to separate immigrant families at the border and detain children apart from their parents spiraled into a humanitarian and political crisis Monday as the White House struggled to contain the growing public outcry.
The situation has become a moral test for President Trump and his administration. The president on Monday voiced defiance and continued to falsely blame congressional Democrats for what he decried as a “horrible and tough” situation. But Trump is empowered to immediately order border agents to stop separating families as a result of his “zero tolerance” enforcement policy.
Trump’s argument is simple. This is not his fault, even if everyone knows it is. He didn’t write the law. He is powerless to do anything at all about any of this, even if everyone knows he could fix all of this in a minute. Of course that makes no sense, but that’s arguing about substance, and this is about style:
The president asserted that the parents illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border with their children “could be murderers and thieves and so much else,” echoing his incendiary remarks about immigrants at his campaign launch in 2015. And in a series of dark tweets, he warned that undocumented immigrants could increase gang crime and usher in cultural changes.
“The United States will not be a migrant camp, and it will not be a refugee holding facility,” Trump said in a midday speech. “You look at what’s happening in Europe, you look at what’s happening in other places. We can’t allow that to happen to the United States. Not on my watch.”
The little kids are incipient little killers, or something, but that was a hard sell:
More than 2,300 children were taken from their parents at the border between May 5 and June 9, according to statistics released Monday by the Department of Homeland Security, with the pace of family separations growing over that period to nearly 70 a day. The separations were roundly condemned – including by all four living former first ladies – as cruel, inhumane and un-American. Administration officials rejected former first lady Laura Bush’s comparison of the detention centers to Japanese American internment camps during World War II.
They said she knew nothing about anything. They might as well have said no one ever liked her anyway, and she dresses funny, so they advanced this argument:
The White House said people killed by illegal immigrants were the true victims because they were “permanently” separated from their family members, even listing crimes in a document that Trump aides shared with allies.
So there! That’s their story and they’re sticking to it:
Though the administration has tried to present a public picture of steely resolve – vowing not to apologize for enforcing the law, as Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said Monday – senior officials have disagreed behind the scenes about the merits and morality of separating children from their parents.
That’s behind the scenes, but this is public:
“Parents who entered illegally are, by definition, criminals,” Nielsen told reporters during an unusually contentious White House news briefing. “By entering our country illegally, often in dangerous circumstances, illegal immigrants have put their children at risk.”
Nielsen maintained that her agency was merely enforcing existing law and said it was up to Congress to change the policy. “It is the beginning of the unraveling of democracy when the body who makes the laws, instead of changing them, tells the enforcement body not to enforce the law,” she said…
Nielsen also said the administration is not using its “zero tolerance” policy to pressure Congress to act on Trump’s broader immigration agenda or to deter migrants from coming to the country, contradicting comments from other administration officials, including Attorney General Jeff Sessions, White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly and senior adviser Stephen Miller.
They really ought to get their story straight, but that will be difficult:
Nielsen acknowledged that she was not keeping pace with coverage of the crisis, including audio of wailing children published a few hours earlier by ProPublica. She said she did not know why the administration had released images Sunday of young boys in cages at a Texas detention center but not of young girls.
Trump has been closely monitoring the coverage but has been suspicious of it, telling associates he believes that the media cherry-picks the most dramatic images and stories to portray his administration in a negative light, according to one senior administration official.
The images in the media contrast with more positive photos that Trump’s aides have shown the president depicting detained children smiling, playing video games and exercising outside, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid.
Nielsen doesn’t know where the girls are and Trump is fed “happy” pictures, so this was inevitable:
Trump and his advisers were unable to stanch the wellspring of public opposition. Some Republican elected officials joined Democrats in expressing moral outrage and calling for an immediate end to the administration’s family separation policy.
In an indication that GOP leaders fear negative ramifications in November’s midterm elections, Rep. Steve Stivers (Ohio), who chairs the House Republicans’ campaign arm, called on the administration to change its policy and “stop needlessly separating children from their families.”
Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) said: “It’s time for this ugly and inhumane practice to end. Now.” He added, “It’s never acceptable to use kids as bargaining chips in political process.”
And Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) tweeted: “The administration’s current family separation policy is an affront to the decency of the American people, and contrary to principles and values upon which our nation was founded. The administration has the power to rescind this policy. It should do so now.”
Two polls released Monday showed the public overwhelmingly against separating the children of illegal immigrants from their parents at the border. A CNN survey found that 28 percent of Americans approve of the policy and 67 percent disapprove, while a Quinnipiac University poll had a similar finding, with 27 percent of voters approving of the policy and 66 percent disapproving.
This was a mistake, a grossly absurd mistake, and there is confusion in the White House:
The president considers immigration a winning issue for him politically, advisers said. He has complained repeatedly in recent months that he looks “weak” on border enforcement and has been concerned that his base could turn on him for not being tougher, according to a senior administration official.
A second administration official said Trump is in agreement with Miller, a hardline influence in the administration, in believing that “if we’re having an argument on immigration, we always win because that’s our ground, no matter what the nuances of the argument are.”
White House officials have said there is no comprehensive strategy at play. “What’s the end game?” another senior administration official asked.
That doesn’t matter, because Trump isn’t confused:
At a meeting with Sens. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.) and Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) at the White House on Monday, Trump reupped his threat to shut down the government in September if he doesn’t get money for the border wall, according to two people familiar with the meeting. The president told the senators he was willing to take such a drastic action, these people said, and wanted his wall funding along with strong border security measures.
The government will be shut down unless he gets his wall. The kids will be ripped from their mothers until he gets his wall. Never admit a mistake and never back down:
Nielsen defended her agency’s practice of separating migrant families and accused the media and members of Congress of mischaracterizing the administration’s border crackdown. “We will not apologize for the job we do, or the job law enforcement does, or the job the American people expect us to do,” Nielsen said in morning remarks to law enforcement officers in New Orleans.
And earlier she had said this – “We do not have a policy of separating families at the border. Period.”
Jeremy Stahl says she had to say that:
There’s likely a reason why Nielsen has insisted categorically that no such policy exists. That reason is that such a policy would almost certainly violate the due process clause of the Constitution. In rejecting the government’s request to dismiss an ACLU lawsuit challenging the practice earlier this month, District Court Judge Dana Sabraw opined that a policy of indefinite family separation would be “brutal, offensive, and fails to comport with traditional notions of fair play and decency” and a “clear” violation of the “constitutional right to family integrity.” The judge, who is yet to rule on the merits of whether or not child separation is actually in fact what’s taking place, applied that logic equally to asylum seekers who have presented themselves lawfully at a port of entry and those who have been prosecuted for illegal entry and served their time. Those who had applied for asylum at a port of entry and saw their children taken away without any apparent lawful basis, as well as asylum seekers who had seen their children separated lawfully while they were detained for immigration offenses and had served their sentences were “on equal footing for purposes of pursuing a due process claim,” the judge ruled.
That means the judge has written that indefinite child separation of asylum seekers – even in cases where a parent had been convicted of illegal entry – would be unconstitutional if it were happening. So in order to keep the practice going, the government has to deny publicly that it is in fact happening, as Nielsen did over the weekend.
It seems that this grossly absurd mistake was also grossly unconstitutional:
In that failed motion to dismiss the due process grounds of the ACLU lawsuit, the government acknowledged it was making the choice to separate families, justifying it as an unreviewable “discretionary” decision. In that legal brief, the Department of Justice argued it was in its discretion to both indefinitely separate parents who had been convicted of the crime of illegal entry and those who had lawfully sought asylum by presenting their family at a port of entry. “ICE’s discretionary decision to detain an alien in a particular facility is not judicially reviewable,” the government argued. This is essentially an acknowledgment that the decision to hold families separately is a choice that Donald Trump’s government is making.
Evidence is piling up of what that looks like in practice.
They have backed themselves into a corner here, but the New York Times’ Jonathan Martin and Maggie Haberman say it’s more than that:
As Republicans try to keep their midterm election strategy focused on the economy, tax cuts and falling unemployment, President Trump sent his clearest signal yet on Monday that he intends to make divisive, racially charged issues like immigration central going into the campaign season.
These normal Republicans want to run on a normal Republican platform – good times – keep ’em rolling – but not now:
Republicans typically handle immigration gingerly in an election year, as they try to appeal to Hispanic voters, independents and moderates across divergent districts. But with more Americans still opposing the tax measure than supporting it, Mr. Trump’s allies believe that trying to link Democrats to crimes committed by undocumented immigrants and gangs like MS-13 will do more to galvanize Republican voters and get them to the polls in November than emphasizing economic issues.
“People don’t turn out to say thank you,” said Corey Lewandowski, one of the president’s top political advisers. “If you want to get people motivated, you’ve got to give them a reason to vote. Saying ‘build the wall and stop illegals from coming in and killing American citizens’ gives them an important issue.”
Everyone is trying to kill you. That’s the message, and this is Trump’s party:
This fear-oriented approach reflects the degree that Mr. Trump has put his anti-immigration imprint on the Republican Party. The same raw appeals Mr. Trump made in 2016 about immigrants illegally crossing the border have not abated among most of his Republican supporters. And his supporters say the party has little choice in an election where Democrats are eager to register their opposition to a president they despise – and that the only way to succeed in a campaign driven by turning out the party base is to focus on what grass-roots-conservatives care most about.
“It’s an issue folks are emotionally attached to,” said Andy Surabian, a Republican strategist and former Trump aide. “I know that upsets some people in the donor class, but it’s the reality of where the party is.”
Mr. Trump’s anti-immigrant remarks are aimed at the conservative base of the party that elevated his candidacy and is dominant in red states and House districts, especially those with largely white populations. The Republican grass-roots were already hawkish on immigration, while the president’s takeover of the party has further diminished its pragmatist wing. And while hardline Republicans are a minority of the country’s voters, the GOP cannot retain its grip on Congress without this bedrock of its base going to the polls.
So none of this was a mistake, except for this:
Mr. Trump’s broadsides against Hispanic migrants, like his criticism of black athletes who will not stand for the national anthem, may resonate in the deeply red states where the battle for control of the Senate is playing out. But such culture war attacks will likely alienate voters in the affluent, heavily suburban districts Republicans must win to keep control of the House.
Further, some in the party believe that by pursuing a hardline approach to families at the border – a policy that is deeply unpopular among independent voters, according to polls – Mr. Trump is handing Democrats the high ground on immigration instead of making them defend their support for less popular immigrant protections like sanctuary cities.
“Somehow I don’t think that putting kids in cages is likely to go over very well with suburban moms,” said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster uneasy about running on the culture wars. Mr. Ayres said his party should campaign on “the concrete accomplishments of a Republican-held government.”
“A fabulously strong economy, a record stock market, ISIS defeated and a world without any major wars that are killing lots of Americans on a weekly basis,” he said, laying out the case.
Republicans cannot run on any of that now. “When men are most sure and arrogant they are commonly most mistaken, giving views to passion without that proper deliberation which alone can secure them from the grossest absurdities.”
It’s too late now. Trump made a mistake. He knew better but his passions got the best of him. Only the worst of him was left, and now the United States is a nation of the grossest absurdities. There are no mistakes. The United States may never recover.