Nearly two years ago, on July 21, 2016, Donald Trump stood at a lectern in Cleveland and made a solemn vow.
“Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it,” he said.
To his critics, this line was chilling, even authoritarian, defying the democratic nature of the American system. But to many of Trump’s supporters, it was a heartening moment—a sign that he would not allow himself to be tied up in red tape and mealy-mouthed excuses. There would be none of the vacillating and hand-wringing of the Obama administration. President Trump would not hesitate.
Candidate Trump was clear that he was talking, in large part, about immigration, which had been the central issue of his campaign:
Tonight, I want every American whose demands for immigration security have been denied—and every politician who has denied them—to listen very closely to the words I am about to say. On January 21st of 2017, the day after I take the oath of office, Americans will finally wake up in a country where the laws of the United States are enforced. We are going to be considerate and compassionate to everyone.
Where that politician has gone is anybody’s guess, but he’s not the one who’s in the White House now.
Trump now faces a mushrooming political crisis over his administration’s policy of separating children of unauthorized immigrants from their parents at the border. While Trump has often been confounded by the checks and balances of the courts and the Congress, this is a rare case where Trump alone really can fix it. With a single word, he could reverse the policy, which his administration implemented last month. Instead, however, Trump has spent days railing at Democrats and claiming that they are to blame. Late Monday afternoon, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen stood in the White House briefing room and echoed Trump’s comments in Cleveland—but flipped 180 degrees.
“Congress and the courts created these problems, and Congress alone can fix it,” she said.
The administration’s aim seems to be to fire up Trump’s base with a hardline immigration policy he knows they want, while trying to bludgeon Democrats politically by blaming them for a policy that is broadly unpopular.
On Monday, he tweeted:
CHANGE THE LAWS!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 18, 2018
It is the Democrats fault for being weak and ineffective with Boarder Security and Crime. Tell them to start thinking about the people devastated by Crime coming from illegal immigration. Change the laws!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 18, 2018
Later on Monday, during an event to announce the creation of a space force, Trump once again repeated his lie that the separations are Democrats’ fault. “I’ll say it very honestly and I’ll say it straight,” he began, and then followed with a claim that was neither honest nor straight:
Immigration is the fault—and all of the problems that we’re having, because we cannot get them to sign legislation, we cannot get them even to the negotiating table—and I say it’s very strongly the Democrats’ fault. They’re really obstructionist and they are obstructing.
This is not true. In fact, as my colleagues and I have reported repeatedly, the policy dates to May, when Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the federal government would prosecute everyone caught crossing the border illegally. Because an existing legal settlement bars children from being imprisoned, that decision means children and parents are separated. The Trump administration knew this would happen from the start. In May, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly described separations as “a tough deterrent” to those who might try to cross. Sessions said around the same time, “If you don’t want your child separated, then don’t bring them across the border illegally.”
These statements, as well as plenty more from the administration, make clear how the policy came into place. The White House and the Justice Department made a calculated decision knowing what would happen, and deciding it was worth the risk.
The fact that the separations only began after a discretionary decision by the administration shows that Trump’s insistence that Democrats are obstructing a fix is nonsense. The claim is even more absurd given that Democrats don’t control a majority of either the House or Senate. The party has generally been eager for immigration reforms, but a battle between moderates and hardliners in the Republican Party has prevented any deal. Besides, the reason that children cannot be kept with their parents is a 1997 settlement agreement that bars the incarceration of children—not a law passed by Democrats.
This is not the first time Trump has tried to pass the buck to Congress. In general, the political squeeze is the same each time: The president’s base demands things he promised as a candidate, but the electorate as a whole opposes them. Rather than risk enraging his base, Trump has punted to Congress, on issues from health care to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
In some of these cases, Trump has found a pretext. He argued, for example, that he supported DACA’s aims but believed Obama’s executive order to be unconstitutional. The president said that only congressional action could make DACA legitimate and canceled it, knowing that Congress was unlikely to act.
In the case of the border separations, however, matters are much simpler. Trump claims to dislike what is happening. There’s no constitutional barrier to overturning the policy announced in May. There’s no law that has to be circumvented. All it would take would be a call from Trump, opting not to lock up every person caught crossing the border, and the separations would stop.
Trump alone could fix it, but he’d rather play politics.