Columnist

It is fitting that President Trump has been forced into retreat by babies. Cruelty should never be mistaken for strength.

Trump’s own confusion on that point was evident on Wednesday, as he announced that he would be taking executive action to undo his own policy of separating migrant children from their families.

“The dilemma is that if you’re weak, if you’re weak, which some people would like you to be, if you’re really, really, pathetically weak, the country is going to be overrun with millions of people,” the president sputtered. “And if you’re strong, then you don’t have any heart.”

His reversal exposed the papier- ­mache quality of the image that Trump has so carefully crafted for himself.

The extreme tactic of separating parents from their children was in keeping with many other things that Trump has advocated to make himself look strong and tough: banning Muslims, building a wall on the border, punishing women who have abortions, killing the families of suspected terrorists, bringing back waterboarding as an interrogation method.

What was different this time was that he followed through — until the outrage began to rise. Then, doing what spineless people typically do, Trump tried to deflect and distract from the truth that Americans could see in the images of children in cages, and hear in the recorded sounds of their wails.

He made the baseless claim that Democrats were responsible for his own brutal policy, and then insisted that only Congress could change it. He argued that traumatizing babies was necessary to prevent MS-13 gang members from entering the country. He contended that adding judges to handle the staggering immigration caseload would breed graft and corruption. He invented statistics about crime in Germany that he said was driven by migrants.

Dubbing as “tender age shelters” the facilities in which the administration was placing toddlers and babies was a euphemism worthy of Mao.

None of that — not the blame-shifting or the fear-mongering, not the straw men or the flat-out lying — has made it any easier to stomach the tragedy that Trump perpetrated on the U.S.-Mexico border.

What Trump has done is without precedent or basis in law, no matter how much he tries to gaslight the country into thinking otherwise.

Polls have shown that two-thirds of Americans oppose pulling children from their parents, of making them tiny hostages so that Trump can gain leverage to build his border wall.

The panic on Capitol Hill became palpable, even among some of the president’s most reliable allies.

“The way it’s being handled right now isn’t acceptable. It’s not American,” Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said this week. “I think we’ve got to do whatever it takes to try and keep families together.”

Maybe there are reasons to hope that this nightmare has awakened some Republicans to the fact that they can actually stand up to the president who has taken control of their party and try to stop him as he continues to hijack conservatism.

Still, don’t look for that kind of courage in the House, where Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) has said he is putting forward a “compromise” to fix the border problem. It would give the president pretty much everything he has asked for. The speaker is bowing to Trump’s ransom demand.

It’s in the Senate that we might see an actual rebuke to Trump.

One of the signs is the about-face of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), who only last week was arguing: “When you see reporters, when you see Democrats saying, ‘Don’t separate kids from their parents,’ what they’re really saying is don’t arrest illegal aliens.”

By Tuesday, he had joined the resistance to Trump’s policy, though he stopped short of criticizing the president himself. “All of us are horrified at the images we’re seeing,” Cruz said, as he pushed for legislation to stop the separations.

The fact that Cruz is up for reelection this year in a border state, against a surprisingly strong challenge by Democratic Rep. Beto O’Rourke, may have something to do with his change of heart.

But it also may be that he and other Republicans are beginning to figure out something fundamental about a president who categorizes everyone as either strong or weak.

If that is right, a grown man who holds the most powerful office in the world, and yet is capable of inflicting anguish on vulnerable children, clearly is one of the latter.