The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

For Trump, what mattered most in creating, and addressing, the family separation crisis was looking strong

President Trump told lawmakers June 20 that he'd "rather be strong" on immigration than compassionate. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

President Trump abandoned his policy of removing migrant children from their parents’ care without any mention of his supporters who defended his false claims that Democrats were responsible for a family separation crisis on the border that only Congress could solve.

Instead, he invited the news media to the Cabinet Room on Wednesday to talk at length about his own strength, an issue he has always placed at the center of the immigration debate. “We are very strong,” he said twice to start, going on to say the word “strong” seven more times, as if worried that allowing undocumented immigrant families to remain together might call his resolve into question.

“If you’re really, really pathetically weak, the country is going to be overrun with millions of people, and if you’re strong, then you don’t have any heart,” he said. “That’s a tough dilemma. Perhaps, I’d rather be strong.”

That bluster — the shock and awe of a president who claims he might not care — has been a calling card throughout Trump’s political rise, a clear rebuke of George W. Bush’s self-styled “compassionate conservatism” and Bill Clinton’s desire to feel the nation’s pain. The “heart” might have won this battle, Trump told the nation, but no one should mistake the skirmish for the whole war.

The projection of strength, after all, has always been the central pillar of Trump’s politics, the reason behind his constant attraction to conflict and a main draw for voters desperate for change and a powerful ally. And immigration has always been his favorite arena for flexing his rhetorical muscles.

“It seems ‘strong on immigration’ wins now,” Trump said Friday in an interview on Fox News, after a conversation with Italy’s new prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, who won election on a platform of restricting immigration.

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

The tough-guy posture of a ­citizen politician who had ­encouraged fisticuffs at campaign rallies, praised murderous foreign regimes and described immigrants as snakes who might “infest” the nation was, ultimately, more important than any single policy, even one that his aides hoped would give him leverage in congressional negotiations and deter future border crossings.

It did not even matter that his team had spent days arguing that the president did not have the power to stop separating parents from their kids, a trauma the American Academy of Pediatrics says can permanently disrupt the “brain architecture” of children. “The Democrats have to change their law,” Trump said Friday, just a few days before proving his own words untrue. “It’s their law.”

For days, he had doubled down in the face of resistance, sharpening his own rhetoric with each turn.

White House staffers and conservative defenders followed him into the breach, aiming to discredit any who raised the ethical dilemma presented by young children given over to strangers by the state. “Don’t for a second let them take the moral high ground,” Fox News’s Tucker Carlson said in a monologue this week on his prime-time show. “Their goal is to change your country forever.”

Then Trump dropped his defenses just as effortlessly, all but admitting the moral dilemma. In his White House, positions on immigration, gun control and foreign policy can spin like a weather vane. The typical shame felt by his peers for taking a misstep, uttering a falsehood or failing to follow through has never been a top concern for Trump.

What matters is that each scene in the unfolding drama shows him as the leader, taking control, calling the shots, appearing defiant and always, most important, strong. He understands politics on a more theatrical level, what one of his close friends has called “the emotional truth” of a situation. That instinct helped him win the presidency.

Family separations had been attractive as a symbol of an immigration policy he has always wanted to appear harsh, a central illustration of his own toughness as a leader. He has described immigration for years as a zero-sum game, with noble Americans in competition against often dangerous foreigners.

Asked in 2015 whether he worried that his immigration rhetoric would lead to innocent people getting hurt, he responded with provocation. “Are you ready?” he said, annoyed by the question. “People are getting hurt. People are being decimated by illegal immigrants. The crime is unbelievable.”

The policy of separating families had been put in place after careful consideration, after being rejected by the Obama administration. White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly had acknowledged on CNN that he was considering it in the spring of 2017, about a year before Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced and defended the policy as the result of a new approach to prosecution.

But the backlash over the weeks that followed extracted a heavy cost on Trump’s own circle, sparking debates with his family and growing discord within his party. Evangelical allies condemned the policy, Pope Francis gave public comments of concern, and Republican incumbents in tough reelection fights found voters they hoped to court rising up in fury.

Even Trump’s former personal attorney and longtime adviser, Michael Cohen, denounced using children as “bargaining chips” in the letter he wrote resigning from a fundraising committee of the Republican National Committee.

“Your random high school friend that never talks about politics posted on Facebook about this,” said one Republican strategist, who did not want to be named criticizing White House policy. “It broke through in a way that I haven’t seen.”

Some in Trump’s circle hope the controversy will serve as a wake-up call, redirecting the debate over immigration in the Republican Party.

“Here is the lesson learned: You can’t negate compassion,” said the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, the president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, who offered a prayer at Trump’s inauguration. “I don’t think ever again we are going to see children ever again involved in such an egregious manner.”

But there is no guarantee that Trump will take the same lesson. His need to appear strong remains unchanged.

Several hours after the Cabinet Room meeting Wednesday, the president reconvened the media in the Oval Office for his signing of the order negating the policy he once claimed was a Democratic law.

He allowed Vice President Pence to make some remarks about “the compassion and the heart of the American people, and respect for families.” After Pence was finished, Trump offered a clarification of his own, not wanting anyone to mistake the new approach for flagging strength.

“I think the word ‘compassion’ comes into it,” Trump said of his new policy. “But it’s still equally as tough, if not tougher.”