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.