The family separations saga has revealed failures of governance, competence and humanity and made one thing clear: President Donald Trump doesn’t believe Harry S. Truman’s famous mantra, “The buck stops here.”
Seventeen days ago, Trump, in a rare display of bending to public outrage over his policies, seemed poised to fix the family separation crisis with a stroke of his pen.
It didn’t turn out that way.
The administrative and moral morass over children taken from their parents under the White House’s “zero tolerance” policy after illegally crossing the southern border is as intractable as ever – even though it’s no longer tearing at the public’s conscience in such a direct and emotional way.
On Friday, in the latest sign of disarray in the administration, officials admitted in court that they may miss a judge’s Tuesday deadline to reunite children under 5 with their parents. One of the complications is that officials are conducting DNA tests on children to ensure they are reunited with their own parents.
The revelation suggests that the political time bought when Trump signed an executive order on June 20 designed to end the storm, precipitated by audiotapes of crying children and footage of kids herded together in cages, may be running out.
“Anybody with a heart would feel strongly about it,” Trump said at the time, and he got a congratulatory tweet from his daughter Ivanka as if he had nothing to do with the practice in the first place.
“Now that an EO has been signed, ending family separation at the border, it is time to focus on swiftly and safely reuniting the families that have been separated,” the first daughter tweeted.
But hopes that the reunions would be swift were dashed in court on Friday and by other reports of a badly malfunctioning system that was overwhelmed when the President ordered a so-called zero tolerance policy that led to separations with no plan for dealing with the kids.
Some parents who have gone through immigration procedures have told CNN they don’t know how to get in touch with their kids – despite a court deadline that expired Friday for the administration to at least put parents in telephone touch with their offspring.
One Guatemalan woman called Lesvia, who got out of a detention center in Texas on Thursday, told CNN’s Miguel Marquez on Friday that she received no answers about the whereabouts of her 10-year-old son, who she last saw on May 19.
“Just give me my son,” she said, sobbing.
The administration has yet to tell Americans exactly how many kids are still in custody, how long they will remain split from their parents and when this grim chapter of modern political history will end.
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar tweeted on Friday that his staff was working hard to get the job done.
“As we adapt to meet new demands and new circumstances, we have committed tremendous resources and deployed hundreds of additional personnel to expedite the reunification of minors with their verified parents,” he wrote.
At a court hearing in San Diego on Friday, the administration said it may need more time to reunite families it separated. Currently, all kids younger than 5 must be returned to their parents by July 10 and families with older children must be reunified by July 26.
Judge Dana Sabraw gave the government until 5 p.m. Saturday to provide a list of all under-5s that it believes are covered by the reunification order as well as the reasons why it needs more time to complete reunions in some cases.
The Justice Department said in the hearing that of 101 children in custody who were younger than 5, 83 had been matched with 86 parents. Forty-six of those parents were in the custody of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency – meaning that reunification could be possible.
But 19 parents have already been removed from the US and 19 have been released by ICE – making the process of finding them more difficult.
Democratic Rep. Eric Swalwell of California said on CNN’s “The Situation Room” on Friday that the government should get no extension, however.
“Their top priority right now needs to be reuniting every child who has been separated from their mother and father. The American people, they want order on our borders but they also want to make sure we do that compassionately,” Swalwell said.
Back to politics
Far from wading into the fray to break up bureaucratic logjams and ease the human misery of separations, Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have gone back to using searing political rhetoric on immigration to shore up the political foundations of their White House.
“A vote for Democrats in November is a vote to let MS-13 run wild in our communities, to let drugs pour into our cities, and to take jobs and benefits away from hardworking Americans,” Trump tweeted on Friday, while ignoring the separations crisis.
Hours later, Pence reinforced his boss’ effort to turn the narrative away from children kept from their parents in a foreign land to calls by some obliging Democratic lawmakers for the abolition of ICE.
“We will always stand proudly with our brave heroes of ICE and the Border Patrol,” Pence said, as he addressed ICE officers and brought greetings from Trump, who he referred to as a “great champion of law and order.” He did not mention efforts to fix family separations.
Trump and Pence were in some ways given an opening by several Democrats, including some potential 2020 presidential candidates, who called for the abolition of ICE without offering an alternative plan to deal with border security.
Trump is also a master of distraction, and he has a polished record of creating new political storms to disguise scandals and dramas that could damage him politically.
He also got lucky. The retirement of Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy and a vacancy that could cement the court’s ideological balance for a generation have captured the political imagination of Washington for over a week.
Next week, Trump will leave for a foreign trip packed with high-profile photo-ops, which includes a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin that is likely to further shove the separations issue into the background.
Yet all this time, several thousand kids are wondering when they will see their parents again.
At times last month, it seemed that blanket television coverage of the human toll of separations would inflict irreversible political damage on the administration.
It’s a perilous moment for any president when failures make his government look callous and indifferent in the face of human suffering. The classic example is Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
When a commander in chief looks impotent to alter the course of events and his government seems to be flailing, his credibility also can be quickly shattered.
Yet the normal rules of the presidency have often been suspended in the Trump era, and although polls show a majority of Americans oppose the family separations, the crucial veneer of authority around Trump has not buckled.
Perhaps it’s because the terror of kids pining for their parents isn’t unfolding in front of the television viewers who were moved by the plight of Americans dying on the streets of New Orleans after Katrina.
It could be that the Trump presidency – and his political career – has had so many near-death moments that it’s now impervious to any long-term damage.
Maybe the reason why the political damage is contained is that a hefty chunk of Trump’s base is deeply invested in the President’s tough immigration policies, so there’s little incentive for him to embroil himself in fixing the mess.
But it’s becoming clear that imbroglio is nowhere near being solved – and there is every possibility of more public relations disasters to come – for instance, if some kids cannot be found in the system.
Doubts about the Trump administration’s capacity to reunite children and their parents are being exacerbated by its unwillingness or inability to publicly describe the scale of the problem or to explain how much progress it is making toward ending it.
On Thursday, Azar said that “under 3,000” children from separated families were in custody.
On Friday in a court filing, HHS said that number included “approximately” 101 kids under 5.
But there is no certainty over how many kids are still separated from their parents and how many families have been reunited – let alone the issue of how the government will deal with new families who cross the border and who won’t be separated but will still presumably be treated as criminals under the zero tolerance policy.
The mess doesn’t look like it will get cleaned up anytime soon.
CNN’s Catherine Shoichet contributed to this report.