It was one of the most turbulent weeks of a chaotic presidency. Searing images and sounds of children separated from their families overwhelmed the Trump administration’s policy edicts, forcing a rare retreat from a president who rarely gives ground.
But if one battle was over, accompanied by a breezy declaration from the president that he had “solved that problem,” the larger war waged by President Donald Trump had barely begun.
Trump has used the days since announcing a change in family-separation policies at the border by reverting to and reinforcing sharply divisive rhetoric around an issue he knows well as a potent political force.
Trump has tweeted about “these people” who are out to “invade our Country”; signed photos of Americans killed by undocumented immigrants, while repeating misleading crime statistics at an official White House event; and declared at a campaign stop in Nevada that Democrats favor “open borders” and want to “let MS-13 all over our country.”
Perhaps most significantly, if it becomes a serious policy initiative, Trump tweeted that those who enter the country illegally must be sent back from where they came “with no Judges or Court Cases.” Trump’s opponents and legal scholars quickly pointed out that denying due process like that would almost certainly be unconstitutional.
It’s a classic play from the Trump playbook of noisy diversions and divisions, of seeking out wedges and exploiting them for political gain. The push appears mostly disconnected from congressional efforts to address aspects of immigration reform; Trump has sent conflicting messages, both publicly and privately, with a good chance that nothing substantive passes either chamber of Congress before the Fourth of July holiday.
Trump is thinking bigger than that. He is serving notice that he wants the issue he rode to electoral success in 2016 to again be central in the midterm elections of 2018.
He is again painting a dark portrait of America, overrun by criminal aliens and an army of would-be border-crossers. He is turning his own struggle to get a border wall and tougher immigration policies into a new rallying cry for his base.
The real crisis of the moment on the border, where some 2,000 children remain separated from their parents or guardians and policies from here remain fluid, has generated some of the uglier outbursts of political rhetoric that we’ve seen in recent memory.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, the father of the White House press secretary, captioned a photo of apparent gang members on Twitter as “Nancy Pelosi introduces her campaign committee for the take back of the House.”
Trump’s former campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, reacted to the story about a 10-year-old with Down Syndrome separated from her family by saying “womp womp” in a cable interview. In another TV interview a few days later, David Bossie, also a former top Trump aide, cut down a black guest he was debating by saying, “You’re out of your cotton-picking mind.” (Lewandowski said his comment was aimed at a fellow panelist, not the child’s story. Bossie later apologized for a comment widely seen as racist.)
As for the other side, tensions erupted over the weekend when Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, was asked to leave a small Virginia restaurant by an owner who considers the Trump administration to be abhorrent. That happened just days after Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen was heckled and forced to leave a DC Mexican restaurant.
At a rally on Saturday, Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., took things even further, urging supporters to show open hostility to those connected to the Trump White House.
“If you see anybody from that Cabinet in a restaurant, in a department store, at a gasoline station, you get out and you create a crowd,” Waters said. “And you push back on them. And you tell them they're not welcome anymore, anywhere.”
Cue new cycles of recrimination, with those on either side of the political divide empowered to point fingers – or do worse – at those standing in opposition.
Few in the arena are blameless for the coarsening of the political discourse. But few are as comfortable operating in this realm as Trump, for whom policy and politics are regularly mixed in volatile portions.
Other politicians might feel chastened by last week’s misreading of the national mood. Yet Trump appears emboldened – eager to exploit the divisions that have made themselves known with renewed intensity.