Trump may reap whirlwind for children and Congress gambit

US Letter: Images and audio of children crying in cages tarnishes N Korean success

Things had been going so well. In recent weeks US president Donald Trump had been enjoying something of a mid-year bounce. His gamble to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong-un appeared to be paying off – an Associated Press poll this week showed that 55 per cent of Americans approved of his handling of the North Korean issue, up from 42 per cent in March and 34 per cent last October.

A department of justice investigation into the FBI's handling of the Clinton investigation gave the president some much-needed fuel for his ongoing assault on the intelligence agency. While the investigation found no evidence of political bias at the FBI, it revealed more anti-Trump text messages sent by former agent Peter Strzok to his colleague Lisa Page, with whom he was having an affair, including a text pledging to "stop" Trump from winning the 2016 election.

For the president, the inquiry was a vindication of a deep-state anti-Trump bias at the agency.

But this week a crisis erupted that threatened to negate the positive developments that had given the president a much-needed boost.


The images of children detained in caged rooms near the Mexican border and audio recordings of children crying out for their parents ricocheted across the United States and the world, prompting a wave of condemnation. Messages of censure came from the Vatican, international allies, and the business world, with America's top airlines warning that their aircraft could not be used to transport children separated from their parents. The crisis gripped the country, dominating news cycles, and pushing Trump's historic meeting in Singapore to nothing more than a distant memory.

Many commentators have called the border crisis Trump's "Katrina" – a reference to the Bush administration's failure to grasp the significance of the 2005 hurricane that devastated New Orleans. Bush's reluctance to connect with the crisis led to a plunge in support for the 43rd president, from which he never truly recovered.

By Wednesday the White House knew it had a public relations disaster on its hands, a crisis compounded by the fact that it had boxed itself into a corner. By continually insisting that only Congress could rectify the issue, the administration left itself open to allegations of mendacity when the president signed an executive order halting the policy of familial separation.

Trump’s dramatic U-turn in many ways adds to the picture of a president who is vastly inexperienced in the world of politics, dramatically underestimating the legislative processes of Congress and the realities of governance.


His decision to stand by the familial separation policy in the face of widespread condemnation recalls his tactic over the “Dreamers” – young people who were brought to the United States illegally as children. Trump rescinded the Obama-era programme last autumn, as a way of pressurising Congress to back a wider legislative package on immigration which would also include funding for the border wall.

But the ultimatum has not worked. Nine months later, Congress is still as divided as ever over immigration, with Democrats unwilling to vote for a package that would fund the border wall, even if it offers protection to Dreamers.

They have been helped by the fact that Trump’s order has been halted by the courts, granting reprieve to the 800,000 Dreamers living in the US. Similarly, the president stood fast to his policy of familial separation this week as a way of highlighting the “broken” immigration system.

To this extent he has a point – successive administrations have hopelessly failed to fix America’s immigration system, foundering in particular on the issue of whether to legalise the 11 million undocumented already living in the country. But this week’s attempt to use children as a bargaining chip to force Congress to act did not work. Trump was forced into an embarrassing reversal, ultimately agreeing to sign an executive order, while Congress struggled to formulate an immigration Bill.

Trump has kept his anti-immigration base on board

In his attempts to tackle the immigration issue, Trump may be learning that the art of the deal does not necessarily translate from the business world to politics.

But among his own supporters he may have escaped from this week’s debacle relatively unscathed. By insisting that he will maintain a “zero tolerance” approach to illegal immigration, while at the same time stopping familial separations which some of his supporters opposed, Trump has kept his anti-immigration base on board.

Given the rapidly changing pace of events under the Trump presidency, the president may be hoping that this week's horrific scenes at the border will soon be forgotten.