US president's administration owns its cruel policy of separating families
Most administrations have to face this public relations problem at one point or another: They make a decision for reasons they think are good ones, then are surprised to receive a wave of negative press coverage and public revulsion, so they have to scramble to come up with a palatable justification that makes them look like they aren't foolish, insensitive, or in some cases, morally monstrous.
That's what's happening to the Trump administration right now as outrage grows over its policy of separating children from their parents when they arrive at the southern border - not just people crossing illegally, but in some cases families who arrive, present themselves to American authorities, and request asylum.
The pictures and descriptions of terrified children and anguished parents have produced a rising backlash, to which the US president, the attorney general, and other officials have responded by essentially arguing that they have almost nothing to do with their own policy.
Meanwhile, Republican members of Congress are spooked enough by the bad publicity that they inserted into their latest hard-line immigration bill - which is supposed to get a vote next week - a provision allowing children to be detained with their parents. Yet US President Donald Trump, for reasons that aren't yet clear, said yesterday that he won't support their bill.
In April, 'The Washington Post' reported that top immigration officials had sent a memo "urging Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen to detain and prosecute all parents caught crossing the Mexican border illegally with their children, a stark change in policy that would result in the separation of families that until now have mostly been kept together".
Less than two weeks later, on May 7, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced in a pair of speeches a new "zero-tolerance" policy under which every illegal border crosser will be criminally prosecuted. That means that instead of being put in immigration detention - where families can stay together - when a family crosses the border illegally, the adults will be subject to criminal prosecution, and since children can't be put in federal jails, they will be removed from the parents.
He said: "If you cross this border unlawfully, then we will prosecute you. It's that simple. If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you and that child will be separated from you as required by law. If you don't like that, then don't smuggle children over our border."
The prospect of children being torn from their parents' arms wasn't an unintended consequence of this policy, it was central to its intention. The cruelty of the policy would provide a deterrent to those contemplating coming to the border.
But as more and more journalists went to the border to see this "new initiative" in action, the administration's rhetoric shifted. Now they began saying that it wasn't a new initiative at all, just an enforcement of existing law. But there is no law mandating that children be separated from their parents. The administration has not been able to point to a statute that requires it, because no such statute exists.
White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders said: "The separation of alien families is the product of the same legal loopholes that Democrats refuse to close, and these laws are the same that have been on the books for over a decade."
And Trump said: "The Democrats forced that law upon our nation. I hate it. I hate to see separation of parents and children." So the Trump administration's policy, which it announced last month, is the fault of an imaginary law that Democrats, who are in the minority in both houses of Congress, passed at some imaginary point in the past and now refuse to change.
That's not the most jaw-dropping rationalisation the administration has offered for its policy of family separation. That honour goes to Attorney General Sessions, who said this Thursday: "Let me take an aside to discuss concerns raised by our church friends about separating families. Many of the criticisms raised in recent days are not fair or logical and some are contrary to law.
"First, illegal entry into the United States is a crime - as it should be. Persons who violate the law of our nation are subject to prosecution. I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order."
So when the administration decides that it won't defend the duly passed law known as the Affordable Care Act in court, that's just a policy decision, based on the principle that people with pre-existing conditions don't deserve guaranteed health coverage. But when it separates families at the border? Then it has no choice, because that's what the Almighty - and the Democrats - demand.
When the administration thought family separation was a tough-minded policy that would deter illegal immigration, they were proud to tout it. Now they're being criticised they pretend they had nothing to do with it, it's someone else's fault. It's a reminder that as viciously cruel as Trump and the people who work for him can be, they're also a bunch of cowards.