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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 ObamaTrump rebukes Holder, Clinton with 'jobs not mobs' refrain Nikki Haley powerfully rebuts Trump Eric Trump calls out Holder on kicking comments: 'Who says this?' MORE

They have caused unease among stalwart supporters of the president — among them, evangelist Franklin Graham and former White House communications director Anthony ScaramucciAnthony ScaramucciAnn Coulter believes Kushner wrote anonymous op-ed bashing Trump Spicer: People at White House are 'burnt out' Scaramucci: John McCain, an inspiration for a day of unity 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 NielsenEx-lawmaker urges Americans to publicly confront officials Migrant caravan expands to 5000 DHS to 'closely monitor' caravan of migrants headed for US border 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 SessionsBeto O'Rourke on impeachment: 'There is enough there to proceed' Rosenstein to appear for House interview next week Emmet Flood steps in as White House counsel following McGahn departure 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 HarrisBig Dem donors stick to sidelines as 2020 approaches Sanders thanks Iowa voters for giving momentum to progressive agenda Sanders: Trump setting 'terrible example' for our children MORE (D-Calif.), a potential 2020 presidential candidate, on Monday called on Nielsen to resign. House Minority Leader Nancy PelosiNancy Patricia D'Alesandro PelosiGOP warns economy will tank if Dems win Ex-lawmaker urges Americans to publicly confront officials Pelosi heckled by Miami Republicans, Proud Boys at campaign event 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 CornynManchin wrestles with progressive backlash in West Virginia O'Rourke's rise raises hopes for Texas Dems down ballot Five takeaways from Cruz, O'Rourke debate showdown 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 TrumpFive takeaways from Gillum and DeSantis’s first debate GOP warns economy will tank if Dems win Gorbachev calls Trump's withdrawal from arms treaty 'a mistake' MORE’s presidency.