President Trump has weathered one week after another of controversy, missteps and turmoil. None quite compares with what he experienced with the storm over his policy to separate migrant children from their parents. It was a trifecta of ineptitude: a policy hash, a political debacle and the most dramatic personal step-down of his presidency.
Not since the rollout of his original travel ban in the opening days of his presidency has a policy — two policies actually — been put in place with such haste and lack of planning. Put aside the contradictory and conflicting descriptions by administration officials (it was a deterrent; no, it was not a deterrent; it was policy; no, it was not policy): The decision to enforce “zero tolerance” and then suddenly undo it provided a textbook example of how not to govern.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions declared the administration’s intentions when he announced the zero-tolerance policy in May, indicating that parents coming across the U.S.-Mexico border illegally would face criminal prosecution and the possibility of being separated from their children.
Amid rising criticism, he said in a June interview with radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt: “It’s certainly not our goal to separate children, but I do think it’s clear, it’s legitimate to warn people who come to the country unlawfully bringing children with them that they can’t expect that they’ll always be kept together.”
Last week, as the policy was being reversed, he said in an interview with David Brody of the Christian Broadcasting Network, “It hasn’t been good, and the American people don’t like the idea that we are separating families. We never really intended to do that.” And yet they did it.
That gives an insight into how the policy was launched, with what was intended to be a clear warning and with a later admission that what border enforcement officials did in taking children and detaining them separately from their parents was never intended. If there is a way to square that circle, neither Sessions nor Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen has found a way to do it.