President Donald Trump has hit on a new exit strategy as he struggles to mitigate the most disorientating political crisis of his presidency: the splitting up of undocumented migrant families.
His obvious conclusion is that even though his hardline populism got him into the mess, only a more unfiltered dose of Trumpism will finally sweep it away.
Trump fired off some of his most raw and authoritarian tweets about immigration yet Sunday and is also cranking up his trade war rhetoric to solidify the safe space where he always returns when he’s in trouble: the embrace of his political base.
“We cannot allow all of these people to invade our Country,” Trump wrote in a tweet that hammered undocumented migrants on Sunday.
“When somebody comes in, we must immediately, with no Judges or Court Cases, bring them back from where they came. Our system is a mockery to good immigration policy and Law and Order,” he wrote.
The President also intensified his assault on trade – like immigration, a pillar of his 2016 election campaign – a few weeks ahead of a trip to Europe looming as yet another clash with America’s closest allies.
“The United States is insisting that all countries that have placed artificial Trade Barriers and Tariffs on goods going into their country, remove those Barriers & Tariffs or be met with more than Reciprocity by the U.S.A.,” he wrote. “Trade must be fair and no longer a one way street!”
On Monday morning, Trump created new areas of distraction, complaining on Twitter about the special counsel’s investigation, which he branded a “now totally discredited and very expensive Witch Hunt,” and the fact that a Virginia restaurant asked his press secretary Sarah Sanders to leave in the latest instance of an administration official feeling a public backlash over the family separations episode.
Trump’s trust in these key themes is significant because it shows his reliance on a method that has been wildly successful, but which failed him last week.
Usually when he gets in trouble, Trump is been able to whip up another outrage or drama to keep up the breakneck speed of a careening political career that needs incessant controversy and anger to ensure that no single drama lingers for sufficient time to derail it.
But despite the President’s efforts, the Trump train has been stalled on the tracks for days.
Images of scared children and depictions of shattered families that tested the nation’s self-image as a beacon of compassion thwarted the President’s efforts to return to full steam ahead.
There was unusual dissent from loyalists in a Republican Party that Trump has thoroughly changed and monopolized. His declaration that he did not cause the problem and that it was the fault of Democrats failed to bite. His own bid to bail himself out with an executive order ending separations only heightened a sense of incompetence as the White House couldn’t explain how it would reunite families.
The administration even gave up explaining itself. For four straight days last week, there was no White House press briefing, adding to the sense of disarray.
As a new week dawns, Trump will need to extricate himself from the mess before it does more damage to his party ahead of the midterm elections in November and try somehow to regain his dominance of the political narrative.
If his administration can finally get a handle on the family separations, it’s possible the crisis could fade. However, Trump may not get much help from Congress since House Republicans face long odds in their effort to pass a bill that includes codifying an end to separations in law, which would almost certainly be dead on arrival in the Senate.
If that’s the case, it’s possible a standalone measure on the issue could gain momentum.
Indications over the weekend however were that the steps the administration is using to deal with the human toll of separations will cause a new round of controversy.
CNN’s Tal Kopan, citing an administration official, reported that immigrants in detention were being offered the chance to sign voluntary deportation orders to be removed from the country more quickly than if they waited for a judge.
In the case of parents separated from their kids, they’re also told that if they sign the paperwork, then they will be reunited – if they choose to be – before they are deported from the country.
Trump as a strongman
On the political front, the President, characteristically, is choosing to attack.
His tweet on immigration was a classic maneuver by a populist leader with authoritarian instincts.
His use of the phrase “invade” was borrowed from a strongman’s playbook in which outside forces, often of a different ethnicity, are used by a leader to portray his nation as vulnerable to forces that want to change its character.
The tweet sparked immediate alarm from critics who worry about the philosophical direction of Trump’s political project.
“What President Trump has suggested here is both illegal and unconstitutional. Any official who has sworn an oath to uphold the Constitution and laws should disavow it unequivocally,” said Omar Jadwat, director of the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project.
Trump used a similar formulation last week when he sought to exacerbate German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s political woes as she faces a backlash against her refugee policies, erroneously claiming crime had risen in Germany as a result.
“Big mistake made all over Europe in allowing millions of people in who have so strongly and violently changed their culture!” Trump tweeted on January 18.
The media is often accused of overreacting about Trump’s authoritarian reflexes on Twitter. Yet this is a President who has constantly sought to test the limits of his power. He has pressured the Justice Department over special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe. He has publicly speculated about pardoning himself if the special counsel finds he transgressed. He has cozied up to dictators while slamming America’s friends.
There are still many unanswered questions about how the separation crisis will shape the Trump presidency in the long term.
On the one hand, the suffering of children and the imagery that it sketched look likely to be a long-term stain on the administration and will be remembered by history as one of the most emotive moments of his entire presidency.
It’s possible that this is a turning point that brought home the changes being wrought in America’s character by the Trump presidency and could influence moderate Republican voters and independents who he needs to win re-election.
Maybe a new moral line was drawn in the sand over separations and public outrage could begin to constrain the President more on one of his signature issues.
With Republicans already struggling to cling to power in the House in November, pollsters will be trying to gauge the impact of the last week – particularly in the suburbs and among women who live there – in districts that could swing the midterm election.
Yet there’s also a case that spending a week at war with the media on immigration will only strengthen the bond between Trump and the loyal voters who put him in the White House – the same group who must come out in droves in November to stave off a GOP defeat.
There is a strong argument that Trump understands the instincts of his key voters on immigration better than other Republicans and the media – even if his actions are seen by critics as an abrogation of the moral values on which America is built.
But it’s also the case that his wider political prospects cannot afford another week like the last one.