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How splitting up families gave Trump the biggest crisis of his presidency

Separating children from their parents at the border represents a repudiation of the core of the GOP.

For the Democrats, the mounting furor over forcibly separating children from their parents at the border offers a golden opportunity before the midterm elections to tar Donald Trump as a heartless autocrat, a modern-day Baron Bomburst ruling over Vulgaria with his very own Child Catcher. Do a Caratacus Potts and Truly Scrumptious lurk in the wings to liberate the imprisoned children? Or will Trump continue to lock ‘em up?

Both Republicans and Democrats are protesting the policy. Family values has been at the core of the GOP, particularly for its evangelical wing. This represents a repudiation of it.

Franklin Graham thus denounced Trump’s move on the Christian Broadcasting Network as “disgraceful.” Others agree. Laura Bush wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post today declaring that Trump’s family separation policy “breaks my heart.” For good measure, she likened the measures implemented by Trump’s henchwoman Kirstjen Nielsen, the head of the Department of Homeland Security, to the infamous camps that Japanese-Americans were incarcerated in by the War Department during World War II. Anthony Scaramucci stated today that Trump himself must “step in there and has to end this thing because I think it is an atrocious policy. It’s inhumane, it’s offensive to the average American. When you think about American values, it does not represent American values.” Melania Trump was more circumspect, stating that she “hates to see” the children being taken from their parents and hopes both sides will reach a compromise.

It doesn’t appear likely. Trump is facing the greatest crisis of his presidency. But he appears to be trapped by his own hardline rhetoric. If he bends, his base will protest. If he doesn’t, the ranks of the protesters will continue to grow. Despite mounting outrage among both Republicans and Democrats, Nielsen and Attorney General Jeff Sessions are doubling down on the so-called “zero tolerance” policy. Both spoke today at the National Sheriff’s Association meeting in New Orleans. “We will not apologize for doing our job,” proclaimed Nielsen. Earlier in the day she claimed in a tweet that the administration did not have a policy of separating families “Period.” For his part, Sessions stressed the magnanimity of America in “incurring enormous cost” to incarcerate the children separately from their parents. He almost made it sound as though they should be grateful for the ministrations of federal authorities.

The danger for Trump is two-fold. While the brouhaha over the border will not trouble his base, and may even reinforce its admiration for him. Ann Coulter is claiming that some of the children are “child actors,” a refrain that some on the fringes of the right have also used to describe school shootings. This could provide an effective wedge issue for Democrats to pry away mainstream Republicans from Trump. Republicans in Congress have been conspicuously silent when it comes to backing the administration on family separation. At the same time, if Trump wants to counter Special Counsel Robert Mueller, his approval ratings have to keep rising, or at least hold steady. The crisis on the border threatens to sink them.

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