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Trump sees immigrant children as bargaining chips in political fight

From Dreamers to separating families: Unable to gain leverage threatening one group of young immigrants, the Republican is now targeting another.
Image: President Trump speaks at swearing in ceremonies for new CIA Director Haspel
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks at swearing in ceremonies for new CIA Director Gina Haspel at the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency in...

For weeks, Donald Trump's official line has been that his administration has no choice but to break up immigrant families and separate children from their parents. According to the president, this is only happening because of a Democratic law -- a claim he's repeated constantly, refusing to accept responsibility for his own policy.

This is, of course, as ugly a lie as Trump has told since taking office. The law the president points to does not exist. As many administration officials have already conceded, the policy was part of a deliberate choice on the part of the president, who could reverse course at any time. Some in the White House have even bragged about it.

Indeed, the New York Times had an excellent piece over the weekend documenting how the president and his team decided to pull the trigger in recent months.

[F]or George W. Bush and Barack Obama, the idea of crying children torn from their parents' arms was simply too inhumane -- and too politically perilous -- to embrace as policy, and Mr. Trump, though he had made an immigration crackdown one of the central issues of his campaign, succumbed to the same reality, publicly dropping the idea after [White House Chief of Staff John Kelly's comments in March] touched off a swift backlash.But advocates inside the administration, most prominently Stephen Miller, Mr. Trump's senior policy adviser, never gave up on the idea. Last month, facing a sharp uptick in illegal border crossings, Mr. Trump ordered a new effort to criminally prosecute anyone who crossed the border unlawfully -- with few exceptions for parents traveling with their minor children.

We know when the president did this, we know why, and we know how. We even know who was helping drive the decision behind the scenes. Trump may be desperate to shift the blame for his policy to those who have nothing to do with it, but top members of his team have openly acknowledged that this was, and is, the White House's idea.

Trump's lying, however, is only a small part of the problem. It's more important to appreciate the fact that his policy isn't just cruelty for cruelty's sake: the president apparently has a strategy in mind.

President Trump has calculated that he will gain political leverage in congressional negotiations by continuing to enforce a policy he claims to hate -- separating immigrant parents from their young children at the southern border, according to White House officials.On Friday, Trump suggested he would not change the policy unless Democrats agreed to his other immigration demands, which include funding a border wall, tightening the rules for border enforcement and curbing legal entry.

An Axios report added this morning that the president views the family-separation issue "as leverage, and will try to get funding for a border wall or other concessions for a rollback of the policy."

In other words, decent people everywhere see 2,000 children separated from their families as an unnecessary and dangerous tragedy. Donald Trump looks at those same kids and sees a bargaining chip to be used at the negotiating table.

The Washington Post's report quoted a White House official saying, "The president has told folks that in lieu of the laws being fixed, he wants to use the enforcement mechanisms that we have. The thinking in the building is to force people to the table."

The article added that Trump hopes to "gain advantage from a practice the American Academy of Pediatrics describes as causing children 'irreparable harm.'"

If this sounds at all familiar, it's because we've seen a related version of this before. Trump originally thought he could get his way on immigration by using Dreamers as a bargaining chip -- basically telling congressional Democrats that he'd put these young immigrants' future in jeopardy unless Dems met his demands. The courts, however, took the White House's leverage away.

And so, Trump has effectively swapped one hostage for another. Unable to threaten one group of young immigrants, the Republican is now threatening another.

This is a presidency sorely in need of, among other things, a moral compass.

Postscript: Even after all of these details came to public light, Kellyanne Conway appeared on "Meet the Press" yesterday and told NBC News' Chuck Todd that Congress "has to act" in order to end the family-separation policy. Referring to lawmakers, Conway added, "If they don't like that law, they should change it."

As everyone involved in this fight already knows, there is no law. Trump created this mess and has the authority to end this nightmare at any time, Whether Conway expects anyone to believe her transparent falsehoods is something of a mystery.