The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump and Kirstjen Nielsen’s embarrassing surrender on separating families at the border

President Trump and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen repeatedly said only Congress could stop family separation at the border, through legislation. (Video: Peter Stevenson/The Washington Post)

The Trump administration insisted it didn't have a policy of separating children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border. It said that it was merely following the law. And it said “Congress alone can fix” the mess.

It just admitted that all that was nonsense — and that it badly overplayed its hand.

Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, who on Sunday and Monday insisted that this wasn't an actual policy and that the administration's hands are tied, will now have to untie them as the White House will reverse the supposedly nonexistent policy. Amid an outcry from Senate Republicans and an emerging promise to fix the problem themselves — just as the White House had demanded — the Trump administration has drafted an executive action to change the policy and keep families united.

It's at once an admission that the politics of the issue had gotten out of hand and that the administration's arguments were completely dishonest. Virtually everything it said about the policy is tossed aside with this executive action. It's the political equivalent of waving the white flag and the legal equivalent of confessing to making false statements. Rather than letting Congress rebuke it, the White House is rebuking itself and trying to save some face.

Even some Republicans were admitting the White House surrendered.

The administration will argue that this is merely a stopgap decision that will still be subject to legal review. It will even cast doubt on the idea that the executive action will stand — instead arguing that it's worth halting the policy while the courts decide. But that's the opposite of the approach the administration had said was demanded by the situation for the past several days.

Here's a sampling:

  • “Congress and the courts created this problem, and Congress alone can fix it. Until then, we will enforce every law we have on the books to defend the sovereignty and security of the United States.” — Nielsen
  • It's not a policy. Our policy at DHS is to do what we're sworn to do, which is to enforce the law.” — Nielsen
  • The only [other] option is to not enforce the law at all.” — Nielsen
  • “I don't want children taken away from parents. And when you prosecute the parents for coming in illegally, which should happen, you have to take the children away. Now we don't have to prosecute them, but then we're not prosecuting them for coming in illegally.” — Trump
  • “You can’t do it through an executive order.” — Trump

And not only did the administration say it was bound by man's law to do what it was doing; it said it was also bound by God's law. "I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13," Attorney General Jeff Sessions said recently in defending the policy, "to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order.” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders offered a similar justification, which logic would suggest means Trump will have some explaining to do at the Pearly Gates.

This is such a course reversal that, just two days ago, the White House was saying it wasn't even onboard with Congress passing a stand-alone bill to fix the problem — dismissing such efforts as a “Band-Aid” that didn't deal with core immigration problems. Today, it is gladly applying the “Band-Aid” itself — and in a way it insisted it couldn't.

Rarely has the White House so tacitly and unmistakably admitted to overplaying its hand. And rarely has it so blatantly copped to its own dishonesty about its actions. Nielsen, in particular, has a lot of explaining to do. But this whole thing is an extremely ugly chapter. And it makes clear that, from Day One, this was a political gambit to force an immigration bill through. It didn't work.

The Trump administration changed its story on immigrant family separation no fewer than 14 times in one week. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post)