A group of boys detained at an immigration facility in Brownsville, Tex., on June 13. (Department of Health and Human Services)
Opinion writer

Most administrations have to face this public-relations problem at one point or another: They make a decision for reasons they think are good ones, then are surprised to receive a wave of negative press coverage and public revulsion, so they have to scramble to come up with a palatable justification that makes them look like they aren’t foolish, insensitive, or in some cases, morally monstrous.

That’s what’s happening to the Trump administration right now, as outrage grows over their policy of separating children from their parents when they arrive at the southern border — not just people crossing illegally, but in some cases, families who arrive and present themselves to American authorities to request asylum. The pictures and descriptions of terrified children and anguished parents have produced a rising backlash, to which the president, the attorney general and other officials have responded by essentially arguing that they have almost nothing to do with their own policy.

Meanwhile, Republican members of Congress are spooked enough by the bad publicity that they inserted into their latest hard-line immigration bill — which is supposed to get a vote next week — a provision allowing children to be detained with their parents. Yet President Trump, for reasons that aren’t yet clear, said today that he won’t support such a bill.

Before we get to the laughable defenses the administration is using to justify its family-separation policy, we should look back to see how that policy — and what the administration says about that policy — has evolved just over the last couple of months. Because it has changed dramatically.

Though the policy change happened recently, the idea of separating families as a deterrent to illegal immigration was being contemplated from the beginning of the Trump presidency.

In March 2017, while he was the secretary of Homeland Security, White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly said he was considering separating families “in order to deter more movement along this terribly dangerous network. I am considering exactly that.” Soon after, Kelly backed off the idea, but it continued to circulate within the administration as a potential step to take.

And families were, in fact, being separated, though in limited numbers. Yet within the administration, there was an eagerness to do more. In April, The Post reported that top immigration officials had sent a memo “urging Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen to detain and prosecute all parents caught crossing the Mexican border illegally with their children, a stark change in policy that would result in the separation of families that until now have mostly been kept together.”

Less than two weeks later, on May 7, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced during a pair of speeches a new “zero tolerance” policy under which every illegal border crosser will be criminally prosecuted. It means that, instead of being put in immigration detention — where families can stay together — when a family crosses the border illegally, the adults will be subject to criminal prosecution, and since children can’t be put in federal jails, they will be removed from the parents. Here’s what he said:

Today, the Department of Homeland Security is partnering with us and will begin a new initiative that will result in referring 100 percent of illegal Southwest Border crossings to the Department of Justice for prosecution. And the Department of Justice will take up as many of those cases as humanly possible until we get to 100 percent.

If you cross this border unlawfully, then we will prosecute you. It’s that simple.

If you smuggle illegal aliens across our border, then we will prosecute you.

If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you and that child will be separated from you as required by law. If you don’t like that, then don’t smuggle children over our border.

The ghastly prospect of children being torn from their parents’ arms wasn’t an unintended consequence of this policy, it was central to its intention. The cruelty of the policy would provide a deterrent to those contemplating coming to the U.S. border. That was the point. As Kelly said on May 11, family separation is “a tough deterrent.”

But as more and more journalists went to the border to see this “new initiative” in action, the administration’s rhetoric shifted. Now it began saying it wasn’t a new initiative at all, just an enforcement of existing law — and since Democrats (who, you might remember, control nothing in Washington) haven’t changed that law, it’s their fault. Here’s what the president tweeted on May 26:

In case it isn’t already clear, this is a lie. There is no law mandating that children be separated from their parents. The administration has not been able to point to a statute that requires it, because no such statute exists. But — as has happened many times before — once Trump says something, everyone who works for him is required to pretend it’s true.

So for example, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said, “The separation of alien families is the product of the same legal loopholes that Democrats refuse to close, and these laws are the same that have been on the books for over a decade.” Just this morning, Trump said, “The Democrats forced that law upon our nation. I hate it. I hate to see separation of parents and children.” So the Trump administration’s policy, which it announced last month, is the fault of an imaginary law that Democrats, who are in the minority in both houses of Congress, passed at some imaginary point in the past and now refuse to change.

But that’s not the most jaw-dropping rationalization the administration has offered for its policy of family separation. That honor goes to Sessions, who said this on Thursday:

Let me take an aside to discuss concerns raised by our church friends about separating families. Many of the criticisms raised in recent days are not fair or logical and some are contrary to law.

First, illegal entry into the United States is a crime — as it should be. Persons who violate the law of our nation are subject to prosecution. I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order.

Just to clarify, when the administration decides it won’t defend the duly passed law known as the Affordable Care Act in court, that’s just a policy decision, based on the important principle that people with preexisting conditions don’t deserve guaranteed health coverage. But when it separates families at the border? It has no choice, because that’s what the Almighty — and the Democrats — demand.

When the administration thought family separation was a tough-minded policy that would deter illegal immigration, they were proud to tout it. Now that they’re being criticized they pretend they had nothing to do with it, that it’s all someone else’s fault. It’s a reminder that as viciously cruel as Trump and the people who work for him can be, they’re also a bunch of cowards.