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Trump's retreat does not signal his unraveling

020917Dionne

E.J. Dionne

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Friday, June 22, 2018

The sweeping outrage over President Trump's policy of separating immigrant children from their parents is a welcome sign of our nation's moral and civic health. Ripping apart the family bond was too much even for some of Trump's most fervent apologists to take.

In the end, Trump had to back off, a remarkable retreat on an issue pivotal to his political rise. Yet even as he reversed course, he did not admit to lying when he said last Friday that an executive order could not accomplish what he now proposes to accomplish with an executive order. He also appears ready to pick a new fight over whether children would be detained indefinitely.

We have a right to celebrate those who pushed for this first step away from inhumanity.

Civic and religious groups who have dedicated themselves to immigrant rights are unsung heroes of our moment. It's encouraging that their work finally gained traction with the larger public. Politicians who spoke up quickly and forcefully — Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., was one of the earliest elected officials to move this issue to the fore — deserve credit.

Journalists documented the administration's systematic cruelty and dishonesty. Pictures and audio of suffering kids still have the power to awaken consciences.

But this triumph will be short-lived if its lessons and the obstacles ahead are ignored.

Trump's stream of lies blaming an outrage perpetrated by his own administration on Democrats inspired the media to acknowledge the special problems posed in covering a president for whom deceit is central to his communications strategy.

It makes little sense, as The Washington Post's Margaret Sullivan argued this week, to report on this regime using the old rules. Something very different and decidedly insidious is going on. Will this lesson stick and influence coverage going forward?

Trump has often relied on vicious assaults against his critics and adversaries to alter the political playing field and to pressure public institutions to bend to his will.

One obvious conclusion from the recent Justice Department inspector general's report is that former FBI Director James Comey was so fearful of a GOP backlash that he broke all protocols by publicly disparaging Hillary Clinton on her use of a private email server even as he was announcing that she wouldn't be prosecuted. And he hit her again 11 days prior to the election when he wrote to Congress about the discovery of "new" emails that turned out to be either duplicates or personal.

Thus did a major institution of our government fold to bullying and intimidation. Trump is counting on this happening again with special counsel Robert Mueller's probe. Will this game be called out for what it is, or will it be allowed to work once more?

Then there is the matter of the Republican Party. True, the exceptional egregiousness of tearing kids away from their parents led more Republicans than usual to speak out against Trump. But many remained silent, knowing how much control Trump exercises over the rank-and-file.

It should shame the GOP that polls released this week by both CNN and Quinnipiac found that while two-thirds of all Americans opposed Trump's family separation policy, Republicans supported it (by 58 percent to 34 percent in the CNN survey, and by 55 percent to 35 percent in Quinnipiac's).

Trump's power is enhanced, paradoxically, by the shrinking of the Republican Party. This was underscored in a recent paper by Pablo Montagnes, Zachary Peskowitz and Joshua McCrain of Emory University.

An analysis of Gallup numbers for me by Peskowitz showed a decline in the proportion of Americans who call themselves Republican, from 32.7 percent before the 2016 election to 28.6 percent in its surveys from late May to mid-June.

The defections mean that those who still identify with the party will keep granting Trump high approval numbers. These, in turn, will continue to serve as a deterrent against criticism from its timid politicians. Only overwhelming public revulsion loosened their tongues this time.

And conservatives need to confront a deep contradiction in their behavior. They tout their support for family values and small government. But Trump is far from the only conservative politician to ignore the interests of family life and to use government's power oppressively where immigrants and other subordinate groups are concerned.

It's tempting to see this episode as the first act in the unraveling of the Trump presidency. But the fact that it took such an extraordinary set of circumstances to bring this disgraceful moment to an end tells us how difficult the remaining struggle will be.

Eugene Robinson is on vacation. E.J. Dionne is a columnist for the Washington Post.

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