Do Trump's Border Moves Reveal a Clever Machiavellian or a Bumbling Doofus?

The political advantages of the president's zigzagging on family separation and the "Muslim ban" are not obvious.


White House

The president announces a strict new border policy aimed at preventing foreigners from harming Americans. Although it is completely foreseeable that the policy will hurt many innocent people and provoke a bipartisan public outcry, the president does not seem to anticipate the objections that eventually lead him to retreat from the policy at the urging of his advisers. Afterward he expresses regret that he listened to his advisers, wishing that he had stuck with the tough policy he initially favored instead of the watered-down version he felt compelled to accept.

That scenario, which played out during Donald Trump's first year in office as he tried to impose restrictions on travelers from Muslim-majority countries, was repeated last week as he suddenly modified a "zero tolerance" policy that had separated thousands of children from parents accused of illegally crossing the southern border. This pattern might reflect a sophisticated political strategy that aims to satisfy Trump's base while first antagonizing and then mollifying more moderate allies and voters. If so, Trump and his underlings have done an impressive job of simulating ineptitude.

It seems more likely that Trump is trying to do what he believes is the right thing, only to be frustrated by legal and political realities. That explanation is more consistent with the chaotic implementation of these policies and with Trump's longstanding views on immigration and border control.

The travel restrictions embodied in the executive order that Trump issued a week after his inauguration grew out of what he had originally described as "a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States." Presumably someone told him that an explicit religious test for granting admission to the United States was constitutionally problematic. Trump's order instead banned travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries, initially including legal permanent residents of the United States as well as people legally working or attending school here. That policy caused much confusion and consternation at airports, provoked protests from Republicans as well as Democrats, and ran into immediate trouble in the courts. It was repeatedly revised, and the Supreme Court is about to rule on the latest version.

The Court probably will uphold that order. But Trump caused needless trouble for himself by recommending a comprehensive "Muslim ban" during his campaign and by rushing to issue a half-baked policy without consulting the people who would be charged with carrying it out or talking to advisers who could have suggested ways to make it more legally defensible (such as making it clear from the outset that the ban did not apply to green-card holders). The administration's lawyers initially seemed ill-prepared to defend the travel ban, and Trump undermined their efforts by complaining that the Justice Department had talked him into a "watered down, politically correct version" of his original order. On the face of it, Trump tripped over his own feet by recklessly following his instincts.

Likewise with the policy of criminally prosecuting virtually everyone who illegally enters the United States, which Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced last month. Sessions knew that "zero tolerance" would break up families, since children could not legally be detained with their parents. Presumably Trump also knew that. Yet somehow he did not anticipate the uproar that would be caused by stories of crying children snatched from their parents and transported hundreds or thousands of miles away. Despite the public outcry, Trump steadfastly defended the policy before suddenly giving in last week by promising to keep families together from now on, although it remains unclear how that goal can be legally reconciled with his commitment to continue "zero tolerance."

Once again, Trump wishes he had stayed the course. "Privately," The New York Times reports, "the president has groused that he should not have signed the order undoing separations." Yesterday Trump tried to compensate for the reversal by declaring that people caught crossing the border without permission should be summarily sent back (an approach that is actually inconsistent with "zero tolerance," which calls for criminal prosecution and punishment prior to deportation). The political advantages of such zigzagging, which does not makes the president look tough or smart, are not obvious.

Trump is not just catering to the anti-immigrant sentiment of his supporters but following through on opinions he has publicly expressed since the 1990s. While it's true that Trump criticized Mitt Romney, the GOP's 2012 presidential nominee, for advocating policies that would encourage illegal immigrants to "self-deport" (a stance that Trump described as "crazy," "maniacal," and "mean-spirited"), he has a long history of advocating not only crackdowns on illegal immigration but reductions in legal immigration. "I'm opposed to new people coming in," he said while seeking the Reform Party's presidential nomination in 1999. "We have to take care of the people who are here."

In The America We Deserve, the book Trump published the following year, his discussion of immigration sounds pretty similar to what he has been saying since he began his 2016 campaign. "America is experiencing serious social and economic difficulty with illegal immigrants who are flooding across our borders," he wrote. "We simply can't absorb them. It is a scandal when America cannot control its own borders….Our current laxness toward illegal immigration shows a recklessness and disregard for those who live here legally….It's irresponsible to give a helping hand to outsiders so long as there is one American deprived of a livelihood or basic services." He added that "legal immigrants do not and should not enter easily" and warned that the U.S. must be "extremely careful not to admit more people than we can absorb."

Trump's sense that gains for immigrants come at the expense of U.S. citizens is of a piece with his zero-sum view of international trade, a perspective that also was influencing his thinking long before he sought the GOP's 2016 nomination. Unlike, say, his current stances on abortion and gun control, Trump's views on trade and immigration seem sincere as well as politically expedient. That history reinforces the impression that he is going with his gut on these issues, heedless of the practical and political consequences. Maybe that is the impression he is deliberately creating so his opponents will underestimate him, a plan that has been in the works for decades. He sure fooled me.