On the surface, it’s just the latest in a succession of political flip-flops that have defined the Trump era. The president shifts his positions not only with the polls, but with the opinions of talking heads on television, and sometimes with the views of the last people with whom he has spoken. His aides struggle to keep up with these rapid shifts, which means that on every position from health care to criminal-justice reform to tariffs, there are usually soundbites of everyone in the administration saying everything. In this, Trumpism might be defined mostly by a lack of conviction and a corresponding unwillingness to ever own up to any one policy decision. The evolving White House take on its blamelessness in the destruction of families would seem to be a prime example of this nihilism as the prime and only directive.
But that conclusion misses out on the pattern of who tends to be hurt by this policy of manifold misdirection. For the thousands of families torn apart by zero tolerance—some perhaps permanently so—and for the children detained and subject to psychologically and physically harmful conditions, there’s no remedy for the Trump administration’s blunder. The same is true of the Puerto Ricans—perhaps thousands— who died in Hurricane Maria while the president bemoaned the size of the ocean between them and the contiguous United States. Even now, while the president attempts to cut a heroic figure with an executive order pledging to end a crisis of his own making, his supposed heroism lies not in suddenly respecting the human rights of the brown masses on the border, but in respecting the will of his own base. Mercy isn’t the order of the day—mass detention and imprisonment will continue.
The idea that the federal government did not intend to tear infants from their mothers is contradicted by statements from leaders of every department involved in the deportation apparatus, and by the chief executive himself. In March 2017, in an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, current White House chief of staff and then–Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly called the prospect of forced separation a “tough deterrent.” Earlier this month, after the policy began to be implemented, Acting Health and Human Services Assistant Secretary for the Administration for Children and Families Steven Wagner said in reference to the prospect of family separation, “We expect that the new policy will result in a deterrence effect.” In his regular tweet storms, Trump has offered support for this interpretation, tweeting last week that “children are being used by some of the worst criminals on earth as a means to enter our country.” As outlined by the administration, the primary purpose of its zero-tolerance policy and of separating children from families was to make the penalty harsh enough to deter people from crossing the border.