There’s a deep disconnect, or even a pathology of sorts, festering at the core of the Trump administration’s response to the humanitarian crisis at the southern border.
On the one hand, Kirstjen Nielsen, Trump’s secretary of homeland security, is appealing to congressional Democrats to engage in a constructive effort to find real solutions to the crisis. Nielsen has embarked on a new private and public campaign to get Democrats to consider legal changes that will supposedly ameliorate the situation.
Yet even as this is happening, Trump is rampaging around like a madman, threatening or putting in place all kinds of unhinged responses, through unilateral action, that are utterly disconnected from the realities of the actual crisis. These actions will only make the situation worse, and they render constructive engagement far less likely, or even impossible.
Right now, even as Nielsen wants Democrats to help solve the border crisis, White House aides are frantically scrambling to figure out how to dissuade Trump from closing down the border entirely, telling him that this would do immense economic damage to the country.
But there is zero evidence that this prospect troubles Trump. He blithely concedes that closure will “have a negative impact on the economy,” but he might press ahead anyway, because security is “more important than trade.” Trump obviously views this threat as a feature, as leverage to force Democrats to give him the legal changes he wants. As Trump put it: “If we don’t make a deal with Congress, the border is going to be closed.”
This will now be the third time Trump used such threats (after the government shutdown and national emergency) to try to force Democratic capitulation. The others failed, but here we are again. This is utter lunacy.
How Democrats might respond to Trump’s threat
House Democratic leaders are considering trying to force Republicans to vote on whether they support Trump’s threat to close down the border, a senior Democratic aide tells me. This would put Republicans in an awkward spot, given the immense economic damage this closure would do, which Bloomberg tallies up in this piece.
The aide confirms the outlines of what Rep. Bennie Thompson, the chairman of the homeland security committee, told Politico: that such a resolution would compel Republicans to vote on whether Trump’s border threat is “in the economic interest of the United States.”
Put another way, Republicans would essentially be voting on whether they approve or disapprove of a situation in which the peculiarities of Trump’s border obsession are threatening serious damage to the country.
It’s hard to know what closing the border might look like. Trump’s advisers are struggling to concoct a version that would mitigate the damage by allowing some trade to proceed. It appears the closure would consist in part of an effort to divert personnel from official ports of entry to handle arriving families, which is also hard to envision in practice.
But, crucially, it’s not clear whether even this would do anything to stem the arrivals, since simple geographic reality dictates that they can set foot on U.S. soil, after which they have the legal right to apply for asylum.
What the administration wants
Nielsen is asking Congress to change laws to allow for detaining families together for far longer, to reduce the draw created by the opportunity to disappear into the interior while awaiting hearings. She’s also asking for more detention resources to reduce these releases, and wants Congress to make it easier to rapidly deport Central American children.
The operating theory here is that both “push” and “pull” factors are important. Those legal changes would supposedly address the “pull” factors, and many inside the administration — Nielsen included — agree that large investments in improving civil conditions in the Northern Triangle are needed to reduce the “push” factors.
Trump wants to end due process?
But Trump is now zeroing out aid to three Central American countries, thus tossing aside any efforts to treat the “push” factors and making regional solutions harder, while doubling down on other fake solutions that are similarly disconnected from reality.
Indeed, this escaped attention, but Trump on Tuesday also suggested that we “get rid of judges” and mocked the very idea that asylum seekers (who have the legal right to apply for asylum) get hearings. This is akin to declaring that we must end due process for asylum seekers, and with it, our international humanitarian commitments on this front.
Meanwhile, even as Nielsen is asking Congress for good-faith help, she declared to Tucker Carlson that ending birthright citizenship via executive order is still “on the table” for Trump. Nor will Trump’s ongoing national emergency address the problem, since it’s geared toward solving the problem with more barriers, which is out of touch with the geographical realities addressed above.
Democrats mull their own solutions
The spike in arriving families is a legitimate humanitarian crisis, and Democrats are currently engaged in an internal debate over how to offer their own proactive solutions without rolling back our humanitarian commitments.
In a new letter to Nielsen, Democrats suggest channeling additional resources to speed up the processing of arrivals; lots more aid to Central America; and a serious effort to craft regional solutions with countries there, instead of threatening them. Democrats will likely put forth more concrete blueprints of their own, as they should.
But for now, the situation is basically that even as the administration is asking Democrats for good-faith assistance, Trump is out there blowing up the very possibility of this almost daily. The view of Democratic aides is that every time Trump does something destructive and crazy, it only shifts the political conversation back to Trump’s basic unfitness, and away from the possibility of constructive engagement.
Worse, it’s obvious that Trump thinks this sort of nonsense will both solve the problem and force Democrats to give him his way. It’s quite a fix we’re in.