President Trump’s abrupt decision Wednesday to issue an executive order directing that immigrant children be detained with their parents, rather than separated, was surprising for its suddenness, but not for its substance.
The president has worked hard to portray himself as a Churchillian rock, a leader who cannot be moved and never gives in. Even the press, which tends to be particularly skeptical of Trump, has accepted this characterization.
“On Wednesday, facing what has grown into the biggest moral and political crisis of his administration, the president whose default position is to double down, simply caved in,” Politico reported. “Trump did something he has rarely done as President: he backed down from the fight,” said Time.
In reality, however, Trump almost always folds when faced with a challenging dilemma: He didn’t brand China a currency manipulator. He didn’t pull out of NAFTA. He backed off threats to yank foreign aid over a UN vote. He was talked out of an abrupt withdrawal from Syria. He nearly yielded to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer on an immigration deal before his own aides restrained him. So while the speed of Trump’s reversal was enough to leave the nation with whiplash—barely 24 hours passed between Trump insisting that only Congress could fix separations to his signing an executive order aimed at doing just that—the result itself was in keeping with established patterns.
Consider also what happened after the violence in Charlottesville,Virginia, in August 2017. The current crisis has drawn comparisons with that one: Both are self-inflicted wounds for the White House; both involve racist rhetoric from the president, moral revulsion from the public, and condemnations from Republicans. Looking back from today, what sticks out most from Charlottesville was Trump’s insistence that there were “very fine people on both sides” of the white-supremacist march, but even that statement was just one of many. Nor do Trump’s actions in August fit the profile of a president who digs in and refuses to change course. The president waffled over the course of several days, first issuing a statement decrying “all sides,” then attempting a more conciliatory statement, and only thirdly landing on his most inflammatory remarks.
Granted, the border-separation crisis is unusual because it involved an actual change in policy. Most of Trump’s previous concessions have been more rhetorical than material. In several cases, he staked out an extreme negotiating position, then backed away from it—a common technique in business deals, though Trump is notable because he seems to have no additional techniques.
The scale of Trump’s reversal on immigration was also less than immediately met the eye—as journalists quickly realized, the president’s order aimed to prevent family separations, but its mechanism keeps children detained, which a federal court seems unlikely to allow.
On Thursday, The Washington Post reported that Customs and Border Protection will stop referring for criminal prosecution adults who come to the U.S. illegally with children. An official told the Post that the change is temporary, until Immigration and Customs Enforcement has enough space to detain families, and my colleague Russell Berman reported from the border that some people were being released and given a court date to reappear. This represents a de facto reinstatement of the policy that the Trump administration had derided as “catch and release,” and had sought to end with the zero-tolerance policy that forced family separations.
Assuming these concessions are about a negotiating position, where do they get the president? If the government tries to detain children with their parents for more than 20 days, it is likely to run into the same problem as the Obama administration, which tried to detain families but was overruled by a federal court. Trump might hope to simply stave off the current political debacle and then quietly restart family separations after losing in court. In the short term, that would ease pressure, but it’s a risky long-term strategy. Or he could quietly concede further in the future, and continue to release adults who come with children, which would upset his base. Because executive-branch officials aren’t even all on the same page yet, with contradictory statements from different departments, it’s especially hard to forecast what might happen.
If the past pattern continues, however, the most prudent assumption is that Trump’s fold will hold. On the other hand, he could also change his habit. The next big test for Trump’s resolve is the multi-front trade war he has begun, both with allies in North America and Europe and with China. Faced with remonstrations from the leaders of those countries over newly imposed tariffs, and negative reaction from markets, Trump has so far refused to back down. He even announced a second round of retaliatory tariffs on China.
Trump associates say that Trump is getting more comfortable and self-assured in power, pointing to his summit with Kim Jong Un as evidence. The Trump who has held office for the last year and a half would eventually fold on this, too—it would just be a question of when. If Trump doesn’t concede on tariffs, though, it would indicate a turning point for his administration, when the president’s actions began to measure up to his stubborn words.