Below are three lessons we can take away.
There is no plan
With Trump, there is a tendency — on the part of both the media and his supporters — to view everything he does as if he's secretly manipulating things behind the scenes. Maybe he separated families just so he could reverse the decision and look magnanimous! Maybe he did it knowing his new executive order would just be struck down anyway! Maybe he's just going to hold families in detention indefinitely!
But basically everything about the past week has betrayed this central reality: There is no plan. This approach might make sense — politically if not morally — if there was a clear endgame. But about the only thing that's been consistent about this whole thing is chaos.
If Trump wanted the House's immigration bills to pass, he has a strange way of showing it, given he has undermined them three times in six days. He said last Friday that he wouldn't sign the more moderate House GOP leadership bill. Then he said Tuesday that he would demand changes to bills that leaders thought had been settled. Then he tweeted Thursday that it was basically pointless for the House to pass these bills because the Senate never would.
And if Trump truly wants to impose a zero-tolerance immigration policy, he's not exactly doing that, either. The Washington Post's Nick Miroff reported Thursday that U.S. Customs and Border Patrol has decided to no longer refer adults who immigrate illegally with children to the Justice Department for prosecution, because they don't have the resources to deal with them. The practical effect is that something akin to the “catch and release” policy for which Trump has so roundly criticized the Obama administration is now the policy, for all intents and purposes.
Trump overplayed his hand
The Trump administration repeatedly said this wasn't a new policy and that it had no choice. Both of those arguments were directly contradicted by its executive order to reverse the policy. And it's now abundantly clear this was a failed gambit to force action by Congress.
Just as Trump rescinded DACA, said he had no choice, and demanded Congress clean up the mess, he seemed to be doing the same with the family-separation policy — which neither the George W. Bush administration nor the Obama administration employed (and which the Trump administration itself didn't employ for more than a year). But while Trump's DACA decision was controversial, separating young children from their parents brought things to a whole new level.
“We’re getting more phone calls on this particular issue than on any other issue we’ve gotten phone calls on,” House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) said Thursday. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said every GOP senator favored reversing the policy. Many of those senators disputed the White House's contention that it couldn't fix the problem itself. The White House initially said it needed Congress to pass a larger immigration package rather than just fix the problem, but then it backed down and fixed the problem itself.
Trump seldom backs down in the face of pressure, but he did so in this case. That, in and of itself, is a pretty unmistakable admission that the White House badly miscalculated the politics of this issue. And, boy, did it.
There is no end in sight
One of the ironies of the immigration debate, I've argued, is that Trump is perhaps uniquely able to make comprehensive immigration reform happen — if he wanted and if he were disciplined enough to do it. Trump has such credibility with a conservative base that has repeatedly balked at any immigration compromises that he could effectively force passage of something if he were to put his full weight behind it.
But this whole situation only created new messes to be cleaned up and relationships that need mending. Meadows and House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) are feuding. The Department of Homeland Security and the Justice Department aren't on the same page. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen's credibility is in tatters. We still have no idea what's happening with the 2,300 children who have already been separated from their parents. The zero-tolerance policy is creating such a backlog that there aren't enough facilities or judges to deal with all of it.
Congress and the administration are now in the position of dealing with recently created disasters rather than the long-standing issues that have been the focus of previous immigration debates. And with the well sufficiently poisoned and so little time until the 2018 election, we may be past the window for getting anything done with a fully Republican-controlled Congress.
If that was part of Trump's plan, mission accomplished.