The outrage and public condemnations of these practices has left Donald Trump with a choice. He can defend his administration’s policy; he can pretend the policy doesn’t exist; or he can try to blame others for what he’s done. In this case, the Republican president has decided to look behind Door #3, as evidenced by this tweet over the holiday weekend.
“Put pressure on the Democrats to end the horrible law that separates children from there [sic] parents once they cross the Border into the U.S. Catch and Release, Lottery and Chain must also go with it and we MUST continue building the WALL! DEMOCRATS ARE PROTECTING MS-13 THUGS.”
Much of this is gibberish, but the part of this that matters was the president’s insistence that Democrats approved a “horrible law” that requires him to separate children from parents.
Trump is clearly lying. There is no such law. As NBC News reported the other day, there’s a 2008 law “requiring children traveling alone at the border to be released in the ‘least restrictive setting’ while their cases are processed,” but it doesn’t require Trump to separate children from their parents, and it was a bipartisan measure signed by George W. Bush.
The policies the Trump administration are imposing on these families are part of a deliberate strategy. Whether the president understands this or not, top members of his own team – including White House Chief of Staff John Kelly and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen – have made no secret of the fact that they’re separating these families, on purpose, in order to discourage additional immigration.
As the Washington Post’s Catherine Rampell explained, “The Trump administration’s goal is to inflict pain upon these families. Cruelty is not an unfortunate, unintended consequence of White House immigration policy; it is the objective. After all, if forced separations are sufficiently agonizing, fewer families will try to come here, no matter how dangerous their home countries are. Administration members have argued as much.”
All of which raises the question of why, exactly, Trump is telling this specific lie.
Obviously, it’s an election year, and the Republican president wants to help his party by attacking its rivals. But implicit in this is an awkward acknowledgement: Trump seems to understand that his own policies are so shameful, his own agenda is so deeply at odds with our collective conscience and sense of morality, that he wants Americans to blame others for his actions.
Indeed, this represents a rare instance in which this president seemed to describe one of his own policies as “horrible.”
Trump could, of course, simply take responsibility for his approach to governing, but that would leave him on the hook for practices he apparently considers shocking. Gaslighting the public is easier than explaining why his administration is needlessly punishing these immigrants.
The question for the White House is simple: if the president is offended by his own policy in this area, and he can’t think of a defense for his own agenda, why doesn’t he stop separating children from their families?