Why Republican Lawmakers Aren’t Backing Trump on Family Separations

11 minute read

Republicans on Capitol Hill listened dutifully as President Donald Trump blamed Democrats for the immigration crisis on the southern border that he created, tweeted demands that they agree to an immigration overhaul he wants and recalled the Homeland Security chief from New Orleans to deliver a feisty defense of his policies.

Then they went their own way.

Despite the prodding from the White House, many Republicans on Monday declined to follow Trump’s cues on a policy of separating parents and children who are apprehended crossing the border. Some stayed silent while others openly questioned the wisdom of the policy. No one wanted to be tied to the Trump Administration’s plans; even Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas came out with a proposal late Monday to overturn them.

“Basta,” said one senior Republican aide in the House. Enough. It was a nod to Hillary Clinton’s go-to riposte when Trump had crossed yet another line during the campaign, and while that knee-jerk frustration may simmer down when the controversy is over, it showed a frustration with the White House’s burn-it-down approach to politics that has Republican lawmakers on edge as they march closer to the fall elections.

Especially frustrating to lawmakers is the fact that the policy is a crisis of the President’s own making. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced in May that there would be a “zero tolerance” policy for families that cross the U.S. border illegally, including those seeking asylum or those who were turned back from over-crowded entry points. Adults have been taken to detention centers and children are sent elsewhere.

Much like his rushed ban on immigrants from Muslim countries, his dismissal of FBI Director James Comey and his new threats to shut down the government this fall unless Congress builds him a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, Trump’s record of impulsive actions has spillover effects for the GOP’s election-year agenda.

“He can fix it tomorrow if he wants to,” Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer said, noting there is no law that requires Trump to do this. Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine used almost exactly the same language later in the day.

Read More: Trump Calls His Own Family Separation Policy ‘So Sad.’ Here’s Why

Either Trump does not believe this, or he does not care.

“Change the laws!” Trump tweeted as part of a series of Monday morning messages that often muddied — if not misrepresented — the facts about immigration both here and in Europe. Neither Republicans nor Democrats are likely to yield to the President’s demands that they give him his complete immigration wish list in exchange for undoing a policy that he himself set in motion.

The President, however, was not in a negotiating mood, advisers said. To help him show his strength, he summoned Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen to Washington from New Orleans to brief reporters at the White House for a testy 25-minute televised briefing.

Watching the President’s day unfold from the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, most lawmakers at the Capitol spent time with advisers in person and on conference calls reviewing the first round of public polling, which showed widespread disapproval. Between sessions, as aides made small talk across party lines while waiting in line for afternoon coffee in the basement cafeterias, it was clear both parties were reading the same surveys. That may have broken the ice and opened the door for rapid and rare bipartisan agreement on a limited bill to undo the policy.

Senior Hill aides from both parties share that conclusion that this is a bigger threat to Trump and the Republicans this fall than they had fully appreciated. (Some privately suspected in the beginning that the people affected by the family separation policy to the United States would not prove as popular as the undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children, known as Dreamers, but the polls proved that wrong.)

The Quinnipiac University Poll, the first independent snapshot of the public’s mood about the family separation policy brought very bad news for those backing Trump’s plan, which dominated headlines during the June 14-17 interview period.

Among all voters, 66% said they disagreed with Trump’s policy. Independent voters and women — two groups seen as decisive blocs in this fall’s elections — said they opposed the practice by 2-to-1 margins. Voters in all age groups and races said they opposed what they were watching. Not even white, working-class voters — measured in this poll as white voters without a college degree — were with Trump; one part of his consistent base split against him, 52% to 37%.

Only self-identified Republicans told the pollsters they backed what the Trump Administration was doing with migrant children, with 55% behind it.

“This is as bad as I expected,” one Republican pollster said of the Quinnipiac survey. “But to see it on paper? Wow.”

The Quinnipiac numbers told the story of a country in rare unity: 66% of all voters, 68% of Independents, 91% of Democrats, 61% of men and 70% of women oppose the family separation policy. The numbers were as consistent across racial lines: 60% of white voters, 80% of Hispanic voters and 88% of black voters all said they opposed the policy.

Released a short time later, CNN’s poll from the same survey dates found similar trends. The CNN survey found 67% of all voters disapprove of the policy, and white, working-class voters opposed it by a 58% to 37% margin.

Again, only Republicans liked the policy in the CNN survey, with 58% backing it.

Lawmakers, who value keeping their jobs over most other considerations, quickly turned skeptical toward the White House and its allies. If the President continues to double-down on his incorrect claims that the law requires him to split up families (there is no law) and it’s the Democrats’ fault (it is not), the elections this fall could be brutal.

Some in the Administration realized the tide was turning over the weekend. On Sunday, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway told NBC News’ “Meet the Press” that “nobody likes this policy.”

That was clear as more and more Republicans started stepping forward to criticize the policy. It began with those with little to lose, growing by Monday night into a full chorus of rejection.

All four living former First Ladies, including Republican Laura Bush, criticized the policies of the current Administration. Current First Lady Melania Trump made a rare public policy comment saying the family separation breaks her heart and urged Congress to do something.

Current Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, said Monday that he was reversing his pledge to send members of the Massachusetts National Guard to the U.S.-Mexican border to help Trump’s security plans. “We won’t be supporting that initiative unless they change their policy,” he told reporters in Boston.

Others with long-established credentials on immigration started to join the debate.

“Children shouldn’t be used as a negotiating tool,” tweeted former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a Trump rival for the 2016 nomination and brother and son to two Presidents. (At the White House, Nielsen denied that the Administration was using them as bargaining chips.)

But that seems to be Trump’s play, according to officials from both parties on Capitol Hill. Trump wants a broad immigration bill to reach his desk so he can make good on campaign-era promises. The images of children being separated from their parents tear at heartstrings, and Trump was betting that his continued attacks on Democrats will make them queasy.

Trump may have misread that one badly.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican who is retiring, said “a policy that leads to separating children from their families is wrong.” Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska said Trump should end the policy immediately. Sen. Lindsey Graham, an occasional golf partner to the President, said Trump could end the practice with one phone call. And the chairman of House Republicans’ official campaign arm, Rep. Steve Stivers, said that if the Trump Administration’s policy on the border is not changed, “I will support other means to stop unnecessary separation of children from their parents.” It was as clear as any sign for Republican candidates from in-play districts.

The floodgates opened quickly in the name of political survival. “I firmly detest the heartless and inhumane practice of separating children from their parents at the border,” said Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, a first-term Republican from a Pennsylvania swing district. “This extreme measure must end.” The bet was that President’s coattails would not be as strong as they were in 2016, when Trump carried Fitzpatrick’s district by 922 votes of the 382,187 cast.

Despite the growing consensus among rank-and-file lawmakers, nothing in Congress is this easy. A win would require an unlikely two-step. At least 11 Senate Republicans would have to side with unified Democrats to force a vote on their narrow provision to end border separations, or Democrats would have to join with something Cruz or Texas Sen. John Cornyn wrote. After that, House Republicans would have to set aside their own brutal intra-party fight long to collaborate with Democrats at the risk of being branded an ideological sellout.

And then the White House would have agree to this limited scope, a move that seemed unlikely based on what Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters during an evening briefing on Monday. “This isn’t just something we can tinker with. We have to actually fix the entire system, and he’s committed to doing that,” she said, all but dooming the efforts to deal solely with children now on the border.

At the Capitol, members of GOP House and Senate Leadership could only hope that the President didn’t slough these statements and polls off as “fake news,” according to one top aide. The fear is that, if the policy and polls stay steady, the President’s team could drag the GOP into the electoral minority after November’s midterm elections.

The entire House is up, a little more than a third of the Senate is, too, and the President is an anchor on their odds. For instance, a national survey released last week from Monmouth University gave Democrats a 7-percentage point lead over Republicans, generically, in House races. At the same time, the GOP’s tax cuts, which were supposed to boost Republicans’ fortunes, saw their popularity fall 6 percentage points since April.

Some voices have tried to scold Republicans whom they viewed as disloyal. They note that Trump is polling roughly on par with Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama at this point in their first terms. That was reason to worry, not celebrate. Reagan’s Republicans lost 26 seats in his first midterms and Obama’s Democrats lost 63.

For some lawmakers, it’s little wonder things aren’t more dire.

Inside office suites at the Capitol, many aides watched on TV as the President used a midday event about militarizing space to address the crisis at the border that consumed most of the weekend’s cable segments. Trump said “what’s happening is so sad,” but laid blame entirely on Democrats’ door all while vowing “the United States will not be a migrant camp and it will not be a refugee holding facility.”

Those mixed messages made some Republicans close to departing House Speaker Paul Ryan cringe. Voters seeing pictures of children ripped from their parents, placed behind metal fencing and held without certainty care little about who is to blame. Those voters look at Washington — where Republicans have the White House and the majority in the House and the Senate — with disgust. Gallup, which has asked the public’s views of Congress for decades, found Congress with a 79% disapproval rating in May.

Trump, meanwhile, polls better than Congress. Which is why many Republicans expect his visit with lawmakers on Tuesday about immigration to be driven by the White House. Republicans openly grouse that their approval ratings are “garbage” but aren’t quite ready to stand up to Trump.

“We cannot do anything without the President,” said one top Republican aide in the Senate. “It’s best to see what he’s going to need before we climb out on a limb on this. This is his show.”

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Write to Philip Elliott at philip.elliott@time.com