Opinion writer

We may finally have found a case where significant numbers of Republicans are willing to oppose President Trump. And all it took was sobbing children being torn from their parents’ arms.

Today, the president will travel to Congress to talk to Republicans about a pair of immigration bills the House is set to vote on later in the week. It comes at a moment when his administration faces one of its most serious political crises, one that appears to be getting worse by the hour as opposition to the policy of separating children from their parents at the border grows more intense.

In a way, this all may have been inevitable. Just as Americans have complex feelings about immigration, Trump has always presented different messages to different audiences about the subject. When he’s speaking to reporters or to what he thinks is a mainstream audience, he offers some compassion. “I have a love for these people,” he’ll say about “dreamers,” insisting that he wants what’s best for them. Then when he gets in front of a crowd of his most ardent supporters he serves up undistilled hate, a dark vision of foreign hordes pouring over the border to rape and murder, “animals” who must be stopped with hardened hearts and giant walls.

But when it comes time to make decisions, the hard-liners in the White House are the ones who win, for a simple reason: The cruel policies they support, including the “zero tolerance” policy whose effects we’re now seeing, are the ones Trump wants.

Trump’s goals on immigration have always been to limit not just illegal immigration but also legal immigration (which is what both of those Republican bills do). When he told people he’d “make America great again,” he was telling them that he’d return us to a time when they wouldn’t have to hear people speaking Spanish in the grocery store, or watch their kids compete with the children of Nigerian immigrants for spots in elite colleges, or drive by a Korean church in their town.

In pursuit of those goals, cruelty toward immigrants isn’t an accident or an unintended consequence. It’s the very heart of the strategy. It shows his base — always his primary audience — that he wasn’t kidding around. At the very least, it’s a bargaining chip: The more heartless a policy is, the more appalling it will be to Democrats and Republican moderates, the more eager they will be to see it reversed, and the more concessions he might extract. So Trump does something awful — canceling the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, separating children from their parents — then says that he’d be willing to take a step back, if everyone else will agree to make permanent changes that will make the immigration system harsher.

But now, because of some combination of sincere moral revulsion and political worries, Republicans are finally pushing back against the president. “Let me be clear — I do not favor separating families,” says Florida Gov. Rick Scott, currently running for Senate. Rep. Steve Stivers, who as head of the National Republican Congressional Committee is charged with electing more GOP members to the House, says he’ll “ask the administration to stop needlessly separating children from their parents.” John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, the two ultra-conservative senators from Texas, each say they’ll introduce emergency legislation to end the family separation policy. “All Americans are rightly horrified by the images we are seeing on the news, children in tears pulled away from their mothers and fathers. This must stop,” said Cruz, sounding downright humane. The fact that Cruz is facing a surprisingly strong challenge from Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who has been a leading voice against the administration’s policy, might have something to do with it.

In the back of everyone’s mind are the midterm elections, just a few months away. The Wall Street Journal editorial page slammed the policy, warning that “House control will be won or lost in swing districts where legalizing the Dreamers is popular and separating families isn’t.” “Somehow I don’t think that putting kids in cages is likely to go over very well with suburban moms,” says a Republican pollster.

Yet it’s unclear that this pressure will actually work. Appealing to the president’s compassion is unlikely to succeed, given that there’s no indication he has any. Politico reports that administration officials led by Stephen Miller “are planning additional crackdowns on immigration before the November midterms.” According to The Post’s reporting, “Trump has been closely monitoring the coverage but has been suspicious of it, telling associates he believes that the media cherry-picks the most dramatic images and stories to portray his administration in a negative light.” He’s getting support on Fox News, his favorite network; Laura Ingraham says the detention centers are “essentially summer camps,” and other hosts continue characterizing immigrants as criminals threatening Americans’ safety.

So what we have here is in some ways reminiscent of the 2016 campaign, when a group of Republican officeholders trying to find some kind of accommodation on immigration got crushed when Trump stomped into the race offering a message unsullied by mercy or practicality. Mexicans are rapists, he said, ban the Muslims, build a wall. The GOP base couldn’t have been more thrilled.

But back then it was all hypothetical. Now you can listen to a recording of immigrant children sobbing and calling out for their mothers and fathers. And the GOP base isn’t the only electorate Republicans have to worry about.