President Trump backpedaled on Wednesday — using the power of his pen to put a stop to his own administration’s policy of ripping kids away from their parents at the border.
Trump, in the face of growing national outrage, retreated from his position that only Congress could fix the issue and signed an unnecessary executive order that halted a policy his own attorney general put into action months ago.
Despite having the full power to do so, Trump had previously claimed he had no control over his administration’s “zero tolerance” policy that led to at least 2,300 children being taken from their parents and placed in detention centers.
And administration officials acknowledged there’s no plan in place to reunite those kids with their parents.
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said his department will start reuniting the families — but made no specific commitment on how quickly that can be accomplished. A rep for Health and Human Services, Kenneth Wolfe, told The New York Times “there will not be a grandfathering of existing cases” and that those who’ve already been separated will have to work their way through the court system.
“We’re keeping families together and this will solve that problem,” Trump said as he signed the order. “At the same time, we’re keeping a very powerful border. It continues to be a zero tolerance. We have zero tolerance for people that enter our country illegally.”
Trump’s “zero-tolerance” policy is continuing — adults caught crossing the border will still be charged with a crime, but families will now be held in custody together.
The about-face was particularly stunning considering how adamant Trump was that he was powerless to put a stop to the separations he’d reportedly demanded be carried out.
“We can’t do it through an executive order,” the President said Friday.
White House officials maintained that “Congress alone” could bring the nefarious practice to an end, although Trump could have simply directed the Department of Justice to bring it to a halt.
The President’s retreat comes amid fierce criticism of the policy from all corners of the country and both sides of the aisle.
Criticism of the hard-line Trump policy reached fever pitch in recent days as reports about the harrowing conditions at the camps became public.
Shocking audio clips of children crying out for their parents and pictures of kids in chain-link cages sparked heated backlash against the administration and led to calls for Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen to resign.
First Lady Melania Trump, in private conversations with the President, urged him to do something.
“The First Lady has been making her opinion known to the President for some time now, which was that he needed to do all he could to help families stay together,” an official told Reuters.
Ivanka Trump, the President’s daughter and adviser, broke her silence on the subject and thanked her dad for finally taking action.
“Thank you @POTUS for taking critical action ending family separation at our border,” she tweeted.
A stubborn Trump spent a week falsely blaming Democrats for his administration’s actions and tried to boot the issue to Congress, calling on GOP lawmakers to pass an immigration bill that both funds his long-sought border wall and ends the separation of families.
Partially keeping up his offensive, the President claimed Wednesday that Democrats support open borders and bizarrely accused people from the Middle East of using the southern border with Mexico to bring crime into the U.S.
“They would like to have open borders where anybody in the world can just flow in, including from the Middle East, from anybody, anywhere, they can just flow into our country,” Trump said. “Tremendous problems with that. Tremendous crime caused by that. We’re just not going to do it.”
Even the order itself casts blame on others.
“It is unfortunate that Congress’s failure to act and court orders have put the Administration in the position of separating alien families to effectively enforce the law,” the document states.
The order hinges on a request for a modification to a 1997 consent decree that prohibits the federal government from holding children in immigration detention for more than 20 days.
Many immigration advocates were skeptical the move would change anything.
“This executive order is nothing more than a restatement of the current policy,” Kerri Talbot, legislative director of the Immigration Hub, said. “This does not end family separation.”
Former federal ethics czar Walter Shaub said the order leaves Trump plenty of “wiggle room.”
“In short, Trump has left plenty of wiggle room for his admin to misbehave, failed to provide any transparency, failed to account for the lies,” he tweeted. “(F)ailed to guarantee return of the children now in the internment camps, and doubled down on arresting everyone.”
“This is a stopgap measure,” acknowledged Gene Hamilton, counsel to the attorney general.
Trump maintained that he anticipates Republicans on Capitol Hill will come up with a permanent solution.
“We will be going through Congress. We’re working on a much more comprehensive bill,” said Trump, who was joined in the Oval Office by Vice President Pence and Nielsen. “What we have done today is we are keeping families together.”
Nielsen on Monday had echoed the President, blaming “Congress and the courts” for the current crisis and saying that “Congress alone can fix it.”
Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and his fellow Democrats repeatedly noted that Trump could have ended the family separations at any time on his own and that neither an executive order nor legislation was needed.
Republicans and the President have countered by accusing Dems of being soft on crime and immigration.
“What was not encouraging was Sen. Schumer’s mischaracterization of the President’s ability to somehow fix this with a flick of a pen. He cannot. It’s going to require Congress to act,” claimed Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) shortly before Trump signed the order.
Trump also announced on Wednesday that the annual congressional picnic, scheduled for Thursday, would be postponed.
“It didn’t feel exactly right to me,” Trump said. “So we will be officially postponing the congressional picnic for tomorrow. We’ll make it another time when things are going extremely well.”
Congress is set to vote on a pair of immigration bills Thursday that Trump has said he will sign if they include funding for his long-sought border wall and other measures.
Critics continued to slam Trump after he issued the order.