It will take more than the cries of babies to make President Donald Trump back down on immigration, an issue that has animated his most ardent political supporters since he first stepped into politics.
The crisis over traumatized kids separated from their parents after illegally crossing the southern border is only deepening after Trump rejected pleas to uncouple their fate from his efforts to drive his hardline border security and visa policies into law.
While some Republicans are responding to rising outrage at the treatment of the children that one top pediatrician derided as “government-sanctioned child abuse,” Trump is defiant and exacerbating the controversy with extreme rhetoric.
Meeting with House Republicans to go over potential legislative fixes, Trump spoke of the heartwrenching images mostly in political terms rather than sympathetic ones.
The President told lawmakers that media coverage of “the crying babies doesn’t look good politically,” one member told CNN’s Dana Bash.
His former campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, perpetuated the message that for some Trump supporters stories of the forced separations should be callously dismissed.
While appearing Tuesday on Fox News, former senior Democratic National Committee adviser Zac Petkanas shared an anecdote he had read about “a 10-year-old girl with Down syndrome” who had been “taken from her mother and put in a cage.”
“Womp, womp,” the former Trump campaign manager responded dismissively.
Trump’s firm stance appears to reflect a belief that immigration is so crucial to his connection with his political base that a climbdown is unthinkable. So he continues to market his false claim that the separations are the fault of laws that tie his hands.
The President continued to deflect responsibility on Wednesday, blaming news coverage for ignoring security issues related to illegal immigration.
“Our immigration laws are the weakest and worst anywhere in the world, and the Dems will do anything not to change them & to obstruct-want open borders which means crime!” he tweeted.
Divergence of interests
His calculation points to a rare divergence of interests between Trump and lawmakers who have largely toed his line after his takeover of the GOP. While the President has an eye on his 2020 coalition, many Republicans fear the storm could doom them with suburban, independent and more moderate voters during November’s midterm elections.
The President’s strategy also relies on his capacity to maintain the misdirection and falsehood that he has concocted around the issue that has been parroted by conservative media.
To that end, Trump poured praise on his Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen on Tuesday, after she braved the White House press corps and defended his policy.
“(She) did a fabulous job yesterday at the press conference explaining security at the border and for our country, while at the same time recommending changes to obsolete & nasty laws, which force family separation. We want “heart” and security in America!” Trump tweeted.
The risk for Trump is that he is increasingly isolated amid a torrent of criticism of the separations, from political, spiritual, business leaders and even US allies, unleashed by heart rending audio of wailing children and pictures of kids in chain-link fencing in detention facilities.
There is meanwhile more than a little irony over the White House’s insistence that Trump lacks the power to stop the separations and that his hands are tied by Congress.
After all, this is a President who has argued he has sweeping executive powers – ones that he said he used in good faith to fire former FBI Director James Comey, for instance, and insists could even be used to pardon himself if any transgressions on his part are found the Russia investigation.
The crucial moment of a day of drama and shifting political terrain was the Capitol Hill meeting on Tuesday evening.
But according to the testimony of those inside the session, the President dealt with the plight of the kids as a political problem rather than dwelling on the humanitarian implications of a practice that he has executive power to change if he wanted.
Earlier, the President poured oil on the fire in a meandering speech to a group of small business owners, in which he accused the media of helping child smugglers and suggested undocumented immigrants are criminals and gang members, after tweeting earlier that Democrats wanted to “infest” America with “illegal immigrants.”
By refusing to change course, despite Republican pressure, and by resisting the possibility of standalone legislation to fix the issue, Trump effectively signaled he wants something in return.
One person in the room told CNN’s Sunlen Serfaty that the President repeatedly stressed the need for the border wall that he once promised Mexico would pay for.
“I am behind you so much. We need the wall,” he said, according to the source.
The White House said that Trump expressed support for two Republican immigration reform bills, one meant to appeal to conservatives and one to more moderate GOP members.
“He told the members, ‘I’m with you 100%,’ ” said Raj Shah, a White House spokesman.
After modifications, both bills would now end the practice of family separations, giving the President a face saving way out of the controversy.
But even the compromise bill contains changes to the legal immigration system, including an end to the visa lottery system and restrictions on family migration that are almost certain to kill its chances in the Senate, many reform advocates believe.
Seeking political advantage
By refusing to consider the separations in isolation, Trump appears to be trying to change the political dynamics for bills enforcing his policies on immigration. Such an approach makes White House denials that the President is trying to use the kids at the southern border as leverage ring hollow.
But Trump has shown an uncanny capacity to assess the feelings of his ever-loyal voters and proven that there is political mileage in sticking to his guns despite growing public outrage.
Trump voters first bonded with their champion over immigration, and Trump seems to be confident that his argument that the rule of law must be implemented and that the children are being used as pawns by parents who broke the law by crossing the border will appeal to his coalition.
One Trump voter in Arizona, Carl Bier, told CNN’s Martin Savidge that he was behind the President all the way.
“These people that we have coming across the border illegally are breaking the rules, I have no feelings for them at all,” said Bier.
Adding to the sense of confusion on Capitol Hill, many members left the meeting with the President still uncertain about exactly what he stands for – in a parallel of many of his troubled interactions with his fellow Republicans that helped doom last year’s health care reform effort.
Most Republicans in Washington accept the premise that immigration reform is so fundamental to shaping the dynamics of their party’s politics that no measure can pass without a strong and relentless effort by Trump to sell legislation to his base and his willingness to give GOP members cover.
Many members had hoped to see that kind of leadership on Tuesday, but didn’t, one member told CNN’s Jeff Zeleny on condition of anonymity.
“It’s always nice to see the President but this didn’t move the ball,” the member said.
Rep. Will Hurd, a Texas Republican who is one of the GOP’s most endangered lawmakers in November, told CNN’s Erin Burnett that it wasn’t clear what would happen next.
“I think it’s a little bit ridiculous that we have to legislate that you shouldn’t take kids from their mommies,” Hurd said.
CNN’s Sophie Tatum contributed to this report.