The Memo: Child separation crisis risks ‘Katrina moment’ for Trump

The separation of children from their parents at the border is fast becoming a political crisis for the Trump administration.

The administration’s actions have drawn fire across party lines, including from former first ladies Laura Bush and Michelle ObamaMichelle LeVaughn Robinson ObamaBudowsky: Bloomberg-Obama or Klobuchar-Kennedy? The Hill's Campaign Report: New challenges for 2020 Dems in Nevada, South Carolina Obamas share messages wishing each other happy Valentine's Day MORE

They have caused unease among stalwart supporters of the president — among them, evangelist Franklin Graham and former White House communications director Anthony ScaramucciAnthony ScaramucciScaramucci thanks John Kelly for speaking up against Trump Trump lashes out over Kelly criticism: 'He misses the action' Scaramucci: 'Trump fatigue' could help Bloomberg beat Trump if he wins Democratic nomination MORE

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Democrats are incandescent about what they see as a grave abuse of human rights. And the news media is bearing down on the issue. Monday’s “NBC Nightly News” was anchored by Lester Holt from McAllen, Texas, where hundreds of young people are being held.

The administration has careened from one controversy to another, yet the president has seen his approval numbers edge up close to their high point of late. 

But some observers wonder if this issue could cause him deep damage because of its emotional resonance. 

The possibility of it rising to the level of President George W. Bush’s disastrous response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 seems increasingly plausible.

“I think it’s bad,” said Peter Wehner, who has served in the administration of several past Republican presidents, including Bush, but is a Trump critic. “It seems to me to be an issue that is breaking through. They [the White House] seem panicked and they are operating in such an inept and dishonest way.”

The shifting rationales within the administration have deepened the political perils associated with a policy that Laura Bush called “immoral” and “cruel” in a Washington Post op-ed.

Politically, it is also disconcerting Republicans who, a week ago, were hoping to fight a midterm campaign on a strong economy, tax cuts and deregulation. They now face questions about whether they support ripping children and mothers apart.

Trump has sought to blame the Democrats for the situation, an assertion for which there is no real evidence. The separations are a consequence of the administration’s decision to impose a “zero tolerance” approach on people suspected of crossing the border illegally.

If adults are detained and prosecuted, children cannot be thrown into jail along with them. But, in effect, that results in the separation of parents from children — a step at which previous administrations have balked precisely because of its humanitarian and political challenges.

Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen NielsenKirstjen Michele NielsenRussian interference reports rock Capitol Hill Acting DHS secretary says he expects Russia to attempt to interfere in 2020 elections House Homeland Security rip DHS's 'unacceptable' failure to comply with subpoena MORE asserted on Twitter on Sunday that “we do not have a policy of separating families at the border. Period.” But after that statement drew considerable backlash — and charges of disingenuousness and flat-out lying — Nielsen in a speech on Monday said, “We have to do our job. We will not apologize for doing our job.”

Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsOn the Trail: Senate GOP hopefuls tie themselves to Trump Trump looms as flashpoint in Alabama Senate battle Trump tweets test Attorney General Barr MORE defended the zero tolerance policy last week by citing a Bible verse about the importance of maintaining order. 

Trump opted for indignation rather than scripture in a series of Monday morning tweets.

“Why don’t the Democrats give us the votes to fix the world’s worst immigration laws?” he asked in one tweet. “It is the Democrats fault for being weak and ineffective with Boarder [sic] Security and Crime,” he insisted in another.

The mixed messages were one of the factors fueling criticism from even Trump loyalists like Scaramucci. 

“You can’t simultaneously argue that family separation isn’t happening, that it’s being used as a deterrent, that the Bible justifies it and that it’s @TheDemocrats fault. @POTUS is not being served well by his advisors on this issue,” Scaramucci tweeted on Monday afternoon.

Fueling the sense of chaos at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., however, a media briefing that was originally scheduled for 1:15 p.m. on Monday was repeatedly postponed. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders eventually took to the podium at 5:12 p.m., accompanied by Nielsen.

“What the president is trying to do is find a long-term fix,” Nielsen insisted.

Democrats are in full voice protesting the policy. Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisClyburn: Biden 'suffered' from not doing 'enough' in early debates Sanders is a risk, not a winner House to vote on legislation to make lynching a federal hate crime MORE (D-Calif.), a potential 2020 presidential candidate, on Monday called on Nielsen to resign. House Minority Leader Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiTrump's Intel moves spark Democratic fury Buttigieg sounds alarm after Sanders wins Nevada Russian interference reports rock Capitol Hill MORE (D-Calif.) visited a detention center in San Diego. On Twitter, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) asserted, “We cannot stand for this.”

Some Republicans say that the downside for Trump is not quite so grave as his detractors suggest.

“The question is, how does this register with voters who care about immigration?” said John Feehery, a former GOP leadership aide who is also a columnist with The Hill. “I would like to see some polling on that, because it is not clear in my mind if that is something that will hurt Trump with his voters or not. My instinct is that it probably won’t.”

But Feehery did acknowledge that “the White House has done a pretty lousy job of communication on this, to be honest.”

NBC News reported in a tweet on Monday that the Department of Health and Human Services now has 11,785 minors in its care. The investigative group ProPublica published an audio recording that appeared to depict young children weeping loudly for their parents. 

“The visuals are very powerful, the individual stories that you can tell are very powerful,” said Grant Reeher, a professor of political science at Syracuse University. “All the things that drive attention are there.”

Throughout Monday, Republican opposition to the president’s policy seemed to be mounting. 

Senate Majority Whip John CornynJohn CornynOcasio-Cortez announces slate of all-female congressional endorsements Trump Medicaid proposal sparks bipartisan warnings Senate braces for fight over impeachment whistleblower testimony MORE (R-Texas) on Monday said that “children shouldn’t be taken from their parents and left frightened and confused about where they are and what is transpiring,” according to an ABC News reporter.

Wehner said one danger was that the controversy would copper-fasten negative perceptions that have long clung to Trump.

“The danger politically is that it reinforces a pre-existing negative stereotype — the dehumanization, the cruelty,” he said. 

“This one, I think, will do damage. I don’t know if it’s a Hurricane Katrina moment. But I think it’s more than a passing, ephemeral story.”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpSchiff blasts Trump for making 'false claims' about Russia intel: 'You've betrayed America. Again.' Poll: Sanders leads 2020 Democratic field with 28 percent, followed by Warren and Biden More than 6 in 10 expect Trump to be reelected: poll MORE’s presidency.