On Wednesday morning, White House cooks were flipping steaks and unboxing popcorn machines ahead of the yearly congressional picnic. Within the hour, the picnic was scrubbed, the steaks on ice, and the popcorn machines trucked away.
A day earlier, President Donald Trump enthusiastically told House Republicans in the Capitol basement he was behind them “1,000%” in their attempts to pass an immigration bill. On Friday he dismissed the effort as a waste of time.
Speaking to reporters as the humanitarian crisis worsened, Trump brushed away a question about his options: “You can’t do it through an executive order,” he said on the North Lawn. Five days later, he sat at his desk in the Oval Office attempting to do just that.
“You’re going to have a lot of happy people,” he said optimistically as he applied his sawtooth signature.
Jumping from position to position as migrant parents remained separated from their children, the President this week put his go-it-alone strategy of governing to the test. Images and audio of despondent children led to outraged calls for action, which prompted outsized reaction from Trump. People close to him say the President has rebuffed advice anew from aides and lawmakers as he works on his own to solve a crisis of his own making.
His gut-driven response has led to confusion and confrontation within the federal government. Officials have convened ongoing meetings at the White House over how to interpret the executive order, including on Thursday night and Friday. Different agencies, including Customs and Border Protection and the Justice Department, haggled with the White House over how the order and Trump’s “zero-tolerance” policy align in terms of which migrants are referred for prosecution.
Meanwhile, the majority of the 2,300 children who have been separated from their parents remain so, with little indication of how they might be reunited.
The continued fallout over family separations at the US border amounted to a high-stakes experiment for how Trump can operate outside the normal guardrails of the presidency. Wary of anyone else’s counsel, he repeatedly discarded advice from his chief of staff on how to proceed. He ignored legal warnings from his top lawyer. And he acted as his own White House communications director, a position that’s now been vacant for months.
The result was pandemonium.
In defense of his policy, Trump felt emboldened to repeat mistruths and outright lies, day after day, during extended and mostly improvised television appearances. For migrant parents still separated from their children, the President’s actions were largely ineffective. Even Trump’s political allies feel jolted and uncertain.