U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers conduct a targeted enforcement operation in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S. on February 9, 2017. 
NTB SCANPIX

Ahead of ICE raids, Trump again puts out the fire he set

It was a week ago today that Donald Trump announced a dramatic new plan: he’d use Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents to “begin the process of removing the millions of illegal aliens who have illicitly found their way into the United States.” The raids were scheduled to get underway yesterday in several major American cities.

By any sensible measure, the plan was difficult to defend: the president’s gambit was a “family op” that John Sandweg, who was an acting director of ICE in the Obama administration, said had “very limited operational value.” Indeed, Sandweg told the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent and Paul Waldman, “You’re draining tremendous resources away from the apprehension of dangerous criminals, and from the current humanitarian crisis at the border.”

Some officials within the Department of Homeland Security made little effort to hide their opposition to the plan and their concerns that they were being used as part of a political ploy. Even acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan made his wariness known.

Over the weekend, the entire plan was put on (ahem) ice.

President Donald Trump announced Saturday that he would delay plans to begin mass immigration raids Sunday against undocumented families.

The president said on Twitter that “at the request of Democrats” the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) would delay the planned mass raids targeting people with deportation orders.

If you’re thinking that it seems odd for the Republican White House to delay an anti-immigrant plan “at the request of Democrats,” you’re not alone. In fact, the president’s stated reason should probably be taken with a grain of salt: NBC News talked to DHS sources who said the raids were called off “in large part because details of the plan had leaked to media. A second issue was that ICE did not have plans in place for detaining the 2,000 immigrants – mainly families – whom they were going to arrest and deport, the officials said.”

While the delay is heartening for the at-risk families and their communities, the reprieve appears to be temporary. Trump returned to Twitter yesterday to declare that if Democrats don’t pass changes to asylum laws within the next two weeks, “big Deportation begins!”

Stepping back, one of the things that makes this story so notable is how many familiar boxes it checks.

Trump made a bold threat and failed to follow through? Check.

He created a crisis and backed off at the last minute? Check.

He blindsided his own team with an unrealistic goal? Check.

He blurted out sensitive information without forethought? Check.

He passed the buck to Congress without meaningful legislative directions? Check.

He took a bunch of people hostage in the hopes that it would force lawmakers to meet his demands? Check.

He engaged in political theatrics without regard for consequences? Check.

He set yet another arbitrary two-week deadline? Check.

It’s the story of the Trump presidency in a nutshell.

I am curious, though, about the degree to which the mass-deportation plan was ever real. Purely as a logistical matter, the president’s plan would’ve required a massive bureaucratic effort. Are we to believe the Department of Homeland Security scrambled to implement Trump’s scheme after he announced it seven days ago, mobilizing a small army of officials, and then the president suddenly told them to stop 12 hours before raids were poised to begin?

Postscript: Will Congress approve major changes to the nation’s asylum laws over the next two weeks? Probably not.