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Week In Politics: Discussing The Trump Administration's Immigration Policy

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Twists and turns over immigration and the now-revoked family separation policy have defined this week from start to finish.

(SOUNDBITE OF MEDIA MONTAGE)

KIRSTJEN NIELSEN: It's not a policy. Our policy...

JEFF SESSIONS: But we do have a policy of prosecuting adults who flout our...

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Prosecute the parents for coming in illegally, which should happen. You have to take the children away.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Let's listen to this audio.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDREN CRYING)

TRUMP: Today I signed an executive order. We're going to keep families together. But the border is going to be just as tough as it's been.

KELLY: It's been quite a week, so let's review the week in politics with E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and the Brookings Institution and Eliana Johnson, national political reporter for Politico. Hey there to you both.

E J DIONNE, BYLINE: Good to be with you.

ELIANA JOHNSON: Hi.

KELLY: So we started the week with zero tolerance and with families being separated at the border. Here we sit on Friday. The president says zero tolerance stays, but he's reversing himself on family separation. E.J., let me start with you. What should we make of a president not known for backing down backing down this time?

DIONNE: You know, what's funny about Trump is he often quietly backs down on a lot of things when necessary.

KELLY: This was not quiet.

DIONNE: But this is kind of humiliating for him. He - just a few days earlier, he said he couldn't end this policy by executive order, and he ends it by executive order. This is what happens when the American people rise up. Two-thirds of Americans, according to lots of polls, thought this was a horrible, egregious policy. However, Trump still kept Republicans with him, which is important for the future. A majority of Republicans said they supported this policy. But Republicans in Congress knew this couldn't stand, and Trump himself apparently hated the television pictures.

But we face enormous problems now. One is finding the kids. It's not clear that they had any good policy for keeping track of the kids. And Trump wants to have it both ways to say, well, I'm ending family separation, but I'm going to be as tough as ever. I think the best summary of this is from the blogger for The Washington Post Paul Waldman, who said it's a crisis born of malevolence made worse by incompetence. And I think the two are part of this.

KELLY: Eliana, what is your read on this about-face by the administration this week?

JOHNSON: You know, this really seemed to me to be - regardless of what you think of the zero tolerance policy, to be a crisis in large part of the administration's own making. There really was no policy process followed, so you had administration officials contradicting each other. Congressional leaders were not briefed on the policy before it was announced, and many White House aides were taken aback by not only the policy when it was announced but then the executive order when that was announced.

And the result was that this created resistance not only from the news media which was broadcasting heart-rending images and sounds but from Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill, including typically staunch supporters of the president, and from the president's family members that I think ultimately made this policy unsustainable for him.

KELLY: Well...

DIONNE: And I - could I say...

KELLY: Please.

DIONNE: I just think that's a really important point, and it speaks to a problem we've seen already in the Trump administration but that was really dramatized in this case, which is that idea of incompetence, the idea of making policy on the fly even on something as complicated as this. It not only can lead to inhumane results. It just doesn't work.

KELLY: All right, now, to follow up on a point you made, Eliana, about Republican lawmakers, Congress was also trying to work on immigration this week. Things completely fell apart yesterday. There were two bills they said they were going to vote on. One of them failed. The other one got punted by a day, and now it's been punted to next week. On a 1-to-10 scale, Eliana, where are you in terms of your optimism that Congress is going to come together and overhaul immigration with a comprehensive bill?

JOHNSON: I'm at about it 2.

KELLY: (Laughter).

JOHNSON: You know, there's no history of Congress moving to act on immigration either in the George W. Bush administration or in the Obama administration. And the presidential leadership here is far less steady than in the previous administrations. I think there was an idea when Trump came into office that the Republican Congress would be able to do whatever it wanted because the president didn't have clear policy views. But I think that the Trump presidency has made it clear that Congress is not unfettered and free to act with a rudderless presidents - with a rudderless president. But instead, it's impotent because all of these lawmakers are looking to the president for guidance, and he is not giving clear signals.

KELLY: If ever there were a moment that something might get done, you have the nation focused on this issue right now. E.J., what do you think?

DIONNE: Well, I'm at a minus-6 on that scale...

KELLY: OK.

JOHNSON: (Laughter).

DIONNE: ...Because I think you've got two big problems here. Problem one is this bill - this second bill which they can't get through is described as a compromise. It's not a compromise. It's a compromise among Republicans.

KELLY: Right.

DIONNE: Democrats...

KELLY: Democrats are not anywhere in this.

DIONNE: ...Have been totally frozen out of this process. So that's a problem one. But problem two is Republicans are divided at least three ways on this and maybe more. You have really, really hard-line Republicans who want - who voted for Robert Goodlatte's - Bob Goodlatte's bill that failed that was a very hard-line - the congressman from Virginia - a hard-line bill. And they don't even like the so-called compromise very much.

You've got Republicans coming from suburban, moderate to liberal districts who really simply wanted a solve the problem of the DREAMers. They don't like the hard-line. And then you've got this vast, mushy middle that would like to vote with Ryan. But with the president out there sending a constant stream of mixed signals, they don't know which way to go either.

KELLY: And meanwhile, the president himself, who seems to be somewhere between y'all at a 2 to negative-6 on this scale - he was tweeting today saying this is a waste of time for Congress to try to do this. He tweeted, Republicans should stop wasting their time on immigration; let's wait till after the election; we'll have more Republicans in there, and then we can get this done - so another yet-to-be-determined issue in terms of whether this will prove a good issue for Republicans to run on in the fall.

But let me turn you both in the time that we have left to two words - Melania's jacket. I'm speaking of first lady Melania Trump. She headed to Texas yesterday. She was meeting immigrant children at a detention center. And for this trip, she wore this jacket with a - looked like a big graffiti message sprayed on the back that said, I really don't care; do you? E.J., with everything else going on, should we care?

DIONNE: Well, I think we should care just 'cause it was so astonishing under these circumstances that you would wear a jacket like that. I got to say. When I first saw it, I thought it was Photoshopped. It shows how out of touch with fashion I am. But I...

KELLY: You're not following the trends of Zara, E.J. - yeah

DIONNE: Exactly. And again, what I don't understand is why someone in the - her staff didn't come up to her and say, you know, this is not a good time to wear a jacket probably with any message but certainly with that message. And that never happened.

KELLY: Eliana?

DIONNE: I'm not going to try to read Melania Trump's mind with this, but I do think it was unfortunate because her visit down to the border was important. The president didn't go. His secretary of homeland security didn't go. His attorney general didn't go. The first lady went, and I think it was symbolic of her opposition to this policy. But that was not the story yesterday. The story became her jacket, and I think that's too bad. And it does underscore what E.J. said, which was, it was a bad decision to wear it.

KELLY: More chaos in the midst of a chaotic week - Eliana Johnson, national political reporter for Politico, E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and the Brookings Institution, thanks to you both. Happy Friday.

JOHNSON: Thanks.

DIONNE: And to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.