Forget authoritarianism. Forget fascist bullying. No one likes those things, but everyone likes a strong leader. A strong leader knows what he’s doing. A strong leader makes what is baffling simple and clear. That’s comforting. Authoritarian moves and fascist bullying can be excused, or denied – that’s not what is happening, really. This particular strong leader is simply clarifying matters, keeping it simple and real. That’s what Donald Trump offered America. He offered comfort. The tough guy would clarify everything, but that was a dangerous offer, dangerous for him. Toughness is a posture, an attitude, as perceived by others. They have to believe the strong leader is what he is. The tough guy has to maintain his tough posture, and that’s hard work. He cannot blink, ever. No one can laugh at him, ever, so he can never allow that to be even remotely possible. A strong leader heads those off. A strong leader attacks first with his preemptive sneers.
Donald Trump knows this, instinctively, but something just happened. That didn’t work:
During a closed-door meeting with House Republicans and President Donald Trump Tuesday night in the US Capitol building, the president veered off topic from the heated immigration discussions to insult South Carolina Rep. Mark Sanford, a frequent White House critic.
According to a Republican in the room, Trump barbed Sanford for losing his recent primary election earlier this month.
“I want to congratulate him on running a great race!” Trump said. When the joke was met with awkward stares, Trump called Sanford a “nasty guy.”
The remarks about Sanford, who was not among the nearly 200 Republicans present, were met with a handful of boos from the conservative lawmaker’s colleagues.
Something changed, and the ultimate “tough guy” had to deny that:
The next day, after several reporters noted that Trump was booed by Republican lawmakers, the president took to Twitter to claim that his joke was met with rousing laughter and applause.
Saying that, in anger, only made things worse. He could have smiled and let it go. He could have shrugged. The anger was weakness, and the “weak” man pounced:
Sanford responded to Trump’s insult, telling the Washington Post that it was emblematic of the problems he has had with Trump for some time.
“I would say the comment goes to the core of why I have at times agreed with policies of the administration but at the same time found the president’s personal style so caustic and counterproductive,” he said. “The tragedy of the Trump presidency is that he thinks it’s about him. The president has taken those earnest beliefs by so many people across the country and has unfortunately fallen prey to thinking it’s about him.”
That’s a deadly comment, but there was a lot of this going around:
Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen – a fierce defender of the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy toward immigration – was heckled by a group of protesters while eating dinner at a Mexican restaurant Tuesday evening.
A group calling itself the Metro DC Democratic Socialists of America camped out next to Nielsen’s table and chanted slogans and hurled loaded questions at Nielsen, who on Monday stood with White House press secretary Sarah Sanders at a briefing and praised the administration’s handling of illegal immigrants coming into the country…
The group shouted, “You’re eating a Mexican dinner as you’re deporting tens of thousands of people separated from their parents,” and chanted “No borders, no walls, sanctuary for all,” among other slogans.
Members also shouted “Have you listened to it? Have you heard the babies crying? Do you hear them crying?” in reference to the audio tape first leaked by ProPublica on Monday purporting to be a recording of immigrant children crying and begging for their parents.
She had proved to Trump that she was strong. He hated her and now loved her, for slapping down his critics, and probably for choosing a “Mexican” restaurant for a night on the town, and now they’re mocking her. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Everything was falling apart. But a tough guy cannot blink, ever.
Then it happened. It was over. The tough guy blinked:
President Trump sought to stanch a public outcry over his administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy Wednesday, signing an executive order to end family separations at the U.S.-Mexico border after days of insisting he was legally unable to act.
Trump’s abrupt reversal, contradicting his own aides’ defense of the practice, signaled a political retreat after an international backlash over images of hundreds of children being taken from their parents and held in cage-like detention facilities.
But it remained highly uncertain whether the president’s hastily drafted order to keep families together in federal custody while awaiting prosecution for illegal border crossings would withstand potential legal challenges. And senior administration officials said the order did not stipulate that the more than 2,300 children already separated from their parents would be immediately reunited with them.
He would still be tough and so would she:
Trump implored Congress to provide a legislative solution as the House prepared to vote Thursday on a pair of Republican immigration bills amid skepticism that either could pass. And in a bid to up the pressure, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen warned lawmakers during a private briefing on Capitol Hill that the family separations could resume if they fail to act.
At the same time, a senior Justice Department official told reporters that the administration had little legal recourse but to release the families after 20 days unless a judge grants an exemption to a 1997 court settlement and subsequent rulings limiting the detention of children.
And then it wouldn’t be their fault. They’d be powerless (and weak) of course – an odd admission – but this was a mess:
The executive order came after a day of frantic White House meetings as administration lawyers scrambled to produce a legally sound document to solve Trump’s political dilemma. Trump had begun to doubt his strategy, telling Republican lawmakers privately on Tuesday night that the images of the children were a “bad issue” for the GOP.
Early Wednesday, Trump surprised his aides by ordering them to write an executive order and saying he wanted to sign it before leaving for Minnesota, despite telling reporters Friday that such an order could not be done. Chief of Staff John F. Kelly and White House Counsel Donald McGahn pushed back, arguing that an executive order could not be written to comply with the legal limits on child detentions – an argument that Trump had championed publicly in recent days – prompting a debate among the president and his aides, according to officials with knowledge of the deliberations.
Kelly urged the president to continue pressing Congress to pass a law and argued that signing an order would not solve the problem. McGahn continued to question the legality of the executive order, according to the officials. Many aides, though, including Ivanka Trump and Kellyanne Conway, urged the president to end the separations. Eventually, after a number of meetings, ideas and drafts, McGahn said the final product could be legal.
That is weakness and confusion, and it showed:
The slapdash nature of the effort was apparent when the White House released an initial version of the executive order that misspelled the word “separation.” Senior DHS officials went through the day with little or no knowledge of what the executive order would ask them to do, or how it would alter the policy they’ve been instructed to vociferously defend in public for the past several weeks.
The episode left many aides puzzled over the administration’s strategy in the immigration fight.
“Everyone in the White House is relieved with the outcome as it stands,” said one senior official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private deliberations. “But we are all utterly confused why we went through this exercise.”
Everything was falling apart, but Josh Marshall isn’t so sure of that:
The actual aim seems to be to pick a fight with the courts and allow separations to continue while blaming judges… The problem is that this violates a 1997 consent decree saying that you can’t detain/imprison children for more than 20 days (technically what’s currently happening isn’t detention). It straight up violates that order. So what will almost inevitably happen is that a court will step in, say you can’t do that and then Trump will announce that the judge is forcing him to keep separating families.
Trump wins. He has to keep separating families. The judge says so. His legal weakness becomes his strength. Fooled ya!
That’s damned clever, but Michael Scherer sees this:
President Trump abandoned his policy of removing migrant children from their parents’ care without any mention of his supporters who defended his false claims that Democrats were responsible for a family separation crisis on the border that only Congress could solve.
Instead, he invited the news media to the Cabinet Room on Wednesday to talk at length about his own strength, an issue he has always placed at the center of the immigration debate. “We are very strong,” he said twice to start, going on to say the word “strong” seven more times, as if worried that allowing undocumented immigrant families to remain together might call his resolve into question.
“If you’re really, really pathetically weak, the country is going to be overrun with millions of people, and if you’re strong, then you don’t have any heart,” he said. “That’s a tough dilemma. Perhaps, I’d rather be strong.”
In short, he blinked, but only momentarily:
The “heart” might have won this battle, Trump told the nation, but no one should mistake the skirmish for the whole war.
Scherer adds this:
The tough-guy posture of a citizen politician who had encouraged fisticuffs at campaign rallies, praised murderous foreign regimes and described immigrants as snakes who might “infest” the nation was, ultimately, more important than any single policy, even one that his aides hoped would give him leverage in congressional negotiations and deter future border crossings.
It did not even matter that his team had spent days arguing that the president did not have the power to stop separating parents from their kids, a trauma the American Academy of Pediatrics says can permanently disrupt the “brain architecture” of children. “The Democrats have to change their law,” Trump said Friday, just a few days before proving his own words untrue. “It’s their law.”
He made no sense but he was tough, but that’s who he is:
For days, he had doubled down in the face of resistance, sharpening his own rhetoric with each turn.
White House staffers and conservative defenders followed him into the breach, aiming to discredit any who raised the ethical dilemma presented by young children given over to strangers by the state. “Don’t for a second let them take the moral high ground,” Fox News’s Tucker Carlson said in a monologue this week on his prime-time show. “Their goal is to change your country forever.”
Then Trump dropped his defenses just as effortlessly, all but admitting the moral dilemma.
That, however, wasn’t a worry:
The typical shame felt by his peers for taking a misstep, uttering a falsehood or failing to follow through has never been a top concern for Trump.
What matters is that each scene in the unfolding drama shows him as the leader, taking control, calling the shots, appearing defiant and always, most important, strong. He understands politics on a more theatrical level, what one of his close friends has called “the emotional truth” of a situation. That instinct helped him win the presidency.
And it was always so:
Family separations had been attractive as a symbol of an immigration policy he has always wanted to appear harsh, a central illustration of his own toughness as a leader. He has described immigration for years as a zero-sum game, with noble Americans in competition against often dangerous foreigners.
Asked in 2015 whether he worried that his immigration rhetoric would lead to innocent people getting hurt, he responded with provocation. “Are you ready?” he said, annoyed by the question.
Innocent people would get hurt. So what? He was tough, but that was wearing thin:
Even Trump’s former personal attorney and longtime adviser, Michael Cohen, denounced using children as “bargaining chips” in the letter he wrote resigning from a fundraising committee of the Republican National Committee.
“Your random high school friend that never talks about politics posted on Facebook about this,” said one Republican strategist, who did not want to be named criticizing White House policy. “It broke through in a way that I haven’t seen.”
Something had changed, even if Trump wouldn’t admit it:
Several hours after the Cabinet Room meeting Wednesday, the president reconvened the media in the Oval Office for his signing of the order negating the policy he once claimed was a Democratic law.
He allowed Vice President Pence to make some remarks about “the compassion and the heart of the American people, and respect for families.” After Pence was finished, Trump offered a clarification of his own, not wanting anyone to mistake the new approach for flagging strength.
“I think the word ‘compassion’ comes into it,” Trump said of his new policy. “But it’s still equally as tough, if not tougher.”
He says that’s so. Maybe it is. He can still do a lot of nasty stuff, and E. J. Dionne sees this:
The sweeping outrage over President Trump’s policy of separating immigrant children from their parents is a welcome sign of our nation’s moral and civic health. Ripping apart the family bond was too much even for some of Trump’s most fervent apologists to take.
In the end, Trump had to back off, a remarkable retreat on an issue pivotal to his political rise. Yet even as he reversed course, he did not admit to lying when he said last Friday that an executive order could not accomplish what he now proposes to accomplish with an executive order. He also appears ready to pick a new fight over whether children would be detained indefinitely.
He can still do a lot of nasty stuff:
Trump has often relied on vicious assaults against his critics and adversaries to alter the political playing field and to pressure public institutions to bend to his will.
One obvious conclusion from the recent Justice Department inspector general’s report is that then-FBI Director James B. Comey was so fearful of a GOP backlash that he broke all protocols by publicly disparaging Hillary Clinton on her use of a private email server even as he was announcing that she wouldn’t be prosecuted. And he hit her again 11 days before the election when he wrote to Congress about the discovery of “new” emails that turned out to be either duplicates or personal.
Thus did a major institution of our government fold to bullying and intimidation. Trump is counting on this happening again with special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s probe. Will this game be called out for what it is, or will it be allowed to work once more?
And then there is the not-so-small matter of the Republican Party:
True, the exceptional egregiousness of tearing kids away from their parents led more Republicans than usual to speak out against Trump. But many remained silent, knowing how much control Trump exercises over the rank-and-file.
It should shame the GOP that polls released this week by both CNN and Quinnipiac found that, while two-thirds of all Americans opposed Trump’s family separation policy, Republicans supported it.
This isn’t over:
It’s tempting to see this episode as the first act in the unraveling of the Trump presidency. But the fact that it took such an extraordinary set of circumstances to bring this disgraceful moment to an end tells us how difficult the remaining struggle will be.
And this really is not over:
An organizer of last year’s deadly white-supremacist gathering in Charlottesville has received initial approval from the National Park Service to hold a rally across from the White House on Aug. 12, the anniversary of last year’s event.
Jason Kessler, who organized the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville with Richard Spencer and other white-supremacist leaders, submitted a National Mall Special Event permit request on May 8 to hold a “white civil rights” rally in Lafayette Square “protesting civil rights abuse in Charlottesville.”
That permit is pending but Trump may make a phone call:
With its bloody brawls and scenes of far-right marchers chanting racist and homophobic slogans, the events of Charlottesville rocked the nation, which saw them play out on television and social media. The fallout was exacerbated that day and later in the week when President Trump blamed both sides for the violence rather than forcefully condemning the white supremacists and neo-Nazis for their views and actions. Trump insisted there were “some very fine people” among the white-supremacist marchers.
Kessler said in an email interview Wednesday that he chose Washington because he wants Trump and elected officials to know about “the civil rights abuse by the Charlottesville government that led to the violence at last year’s rally.”
The rally is for white civil rights, Kessler said, because “white people are being denied the ability to organize in political organizations the way other groups do, free of harassment, to face the issues important to us.”
Trump probably will make that phone call, and Philip Rucker explains why:
Echoing the words and images of the white nationalist movement to dehumanize immigrants and inflame racial tensions has become a defining feature of Donald Trump’s presidency and of the Republican Party’s brand.
Trump has stirred supporters at rallies by reading “The Snake,” a parable about a tenderhearted woman who takes in an ailing snake but is later killed when the revived creature bites her. It should be heard as a metaphor for immigration, he says.
The president referred to some African nations as “shithole countries.” He posited that “both sides” were to blame for last summer’s deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville. And, again and again, he has accused black football players who took a knee during the playing of the national anthem to protest police discrimination of being un-American.
He is who he is, that strong leader, that tough guy:
“He takes a blowtorch to the tinder,” said Peter Wehner, a Trump critic who worked in the previous three Republican administrations and is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.
“For Trump and for his presidency, the culture war is central and defining – and it’s a culture war of a particular kind,” Wehner added. “It’s not the traditional culture war of gay rights and abortion. It’s a culture war that manifests itself in race and ethnicity and nationality. That is his go-to theme.”
The tough guy clarifies everything:
As he leads his party into the potentially perilous midterm election five months from now, Trump is trying to make cultural identity a central theme of the Republican pitch to voters. His messages have been amplified by his surrogates as well as by friendly broadcasters on Fox News Channel and elsewhere in the conservative media.
Trump is calculating that by playing to people’s fears and anxieties he can maximize turnout among hardcore supporters to counterbalance evident enthusiasm on the Democratic side. Fueling Trump’s approach, advisers say, is an unremitting fear of his own: that his base could abandon him if he is deemed too weak on immigration, which was a centerpiece of his 2016 campaign.
That’s the whole point, but for this:
Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster who has long advocated that his party adopt a more inclusive posture to appeal to the nation’s diversifying electorate, warned that Trump’s strategy is risky.
“In a government of the people, by the people and for the people,” he said, “it helps to have a majority of the people behind what you’re trying to do.”
There is that minor detail, and Gabriel Sherman has sources inside the White House:
In the era of primal Trump, West Wing advisers have been bracing for the moment when Donald Trump instigates a moral and political crisis from which the White House can’t recover. The current situation, with its heartbreaking images of migrant families being separated on the southern border, and children interned in camps and kept in cages, might be that moment. There are echoes of Charlottesville, with the president digging himself deeper, even as the midterms loom. “This is brutal,” said one Republican close to the president. “Trump is riding high in the polls, and it’s playing into his mental state that he’s invincible.”
He isn’t invincible:
The president’s hardline rhetoric on family separation has sowed chaos in the West Wing, two sources close to the White House told me. For the second day in a row, Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders – already eyeing an exit, though not for months – did not hold an on-camera briefing with reporters. “She’s tired of taking on water for something she doesn’t believe in,” a friend of Sanders told me. “She continues to have a frustration that the policies are all over the map,” another person close to her said. “It’s not a good look for Sarah.” According to sources, if Sanders were to leave earlier than expected, Trump is high on former Fox & Friends anchor Heather Nauert, who’s currently the State Department spokesperson, to be his next press secretary. “Trump loves her,” one former administration official said.
That won’t help:
Meanwhile, as the border crisis spirals, the absence of a coordinated policy process has allowed the most extreme administration voices to fill the vacuum. White House senior policy adviser Stephen Miller has all but become the face of the issue, a development that even supporters of Trump’s “zero-tolerance” position say is damaging the White House. “Stephen actually enjoys seeing those pictures at the border,” an outside White House adviser said. “He’s a twisted guy, the way he was raised and picked on. There’s always been a way he’s gone about this. He’s Waffen-SS.”
Stephen Miller is a Nazi? Why are these people leaking these things to Gabe Sherman? Things have changed. The tough guy blinked, momentarily. Now he will do everything he can to prove that he’s an even tougher guy than anyone imagined. But he blinked. Now things get interesting – appallingly more nasty, but interesting.