Inside Trump's rare reversal

Political leverage had evaporated

By KEVIN LIPTAK, CNN
Win McNamee/Getty Images

Kirstjen Nielsen, Donald Trump, Mike Pence

WASHINGTON (CNN) - Frustrated that even his political allies were questioning his heart, President Donald Trump determined early Wednesday he would break with days of his own misleading claims and end the practice of separating families at the border.

It was an abrupt decision for a President known more for leaning into his unpopular decisions than abandoning them. Even though internal discussions about confronting the child detentions had been ongoing for a week, Trump's decision to sign an executive order still caught some of his closest aides off-guard. The swift turn of events is leading to new questions about the advisers who encouraged Trump to hold the line, even as his staunchest protectors urged him to change course.

Meanwhile, the document Trump signed won't reunite the more than 2,300 children currently separated from their parents, whose plight Trump admitted privately this week was deeply damaging to him politically.

As deflated members of his staff either rush for the exits or distance themselves from his whims, Trump is largely alone. Now going on three months without a communications director, Trump determined himself when and how to speak out. Eternally wary of appearing weak in the face of critics, Trump wrestled for days with how to confront the humanitarian and political crisis, people familiar with his thinking said, but took outside advice only fleetingly.

How precisely the executive order Trump signed on Wednesday will remedy the current situation isn't yet known. It's likely to be tied up in a court battle, and the Department of Health and Human Services acknowledged hours after Trump signed the order in the Oval Office that the thousands of children being held now won't be reunited with their parents right away.

The department later walked back that statement, saying the spokesman "misspoke" and that it would await further guidance on how to proceed.

The confusion spoke to the rushed nature of the measure, which came about rapidly after Trump instructed aides early on Wednesday to prepare a way for him to officially, and publicly, end the separation practice. As he did during a Tuesday evening meeting with lawmakers on Capitol Hill, Trump again acknowledged privately the following morning that the images of children played terribly for him, even as he speculated the media was only showing the worst pictures.

Trump insisted to aides he take some type of formal action, despite the fact the separations could be ended without one, saying it was necessary he be seen as taking a decisive step rather than quietly reversing his own "zero-tolerance" policy that led to the crisis.

Reality on Capitol Hill

His decision was aided by stark reality from Capitol Hill: neither of the two bills that might end the practice was garnering enough support for passage, leading to an unclear path for a quick legislative fix. Several White House officials advised the President to accept a stand alone bill addressing family separations or some other solution to this issue. But Trump was loathe to give up leverage in the fight for his border wall funding and other priorities.

By Wednesday morning, however, it was clear whatever leverage he may have had had evaporated amid the political crisis.

"How do you think the leverage is playing for us right now?" asked one official sarcastically.

Reflecting his displeasure with Congress, Trump also announced he would no longer host the annual congressional picnic Thursday, leading to the dejected sight of popcorn machines being re-loaded into their crates and trucked away from the South Lawn. Even that decision was made last minute; moments before he called off the event, White House cooks were still busy grilling steaks in preparation for the event.

Elsewhere, a flurry of activity surrounded the sudden about-face. Just before 11 a.m., as reports emerged of a potential executive order, the President's policy adviser Stephen Miller was seen leaving the press secretary Sarah Sanders' office. Both he and Sanders refused to comment on the existence of an executive order draft. Other aides also flocked to Sanders' office, but declined comment on the pending action.

On Capitol Hill, staffers on the White House legislative team were meeting with congressional members to discuss the pending immigration bills when word of an executive order arrived. Faced with questions from lawmakers on the new development, an aide said the team felt "totally caught off guard."

Ivanka Trump was seen leaving the Oval Office around the same time, but walked too quickly for reporters to get a question to her. In the White House's telling, it was her pressure, along with the first lady's, that helped lead Trump to his decision.

"Ivanka feels very strongly," Trump said on Wednesday when asked if his daughter showed him photos of the separations. "My wife feels very strongly about it. I feel very strongly about it. I think anybody with a heart would feel very strongly about it. We don't like to see families separated."

Contradictions abound

Over the weekend, Trump angrily watched as members of his administration contradicted themselves on television while images of the detention facilities aired on a split-screen. Insisting the reality on the ground was not as bad as it was portrayed in the media, he vented that no one was adequately defending him against claims of cruelty.

As the week began, the outcry grew louder. Trump dug in, carving out time in otherwise unrelated speeches to explain why he could not end the horrifying practice himself. He personally signed off on a plan to deploy Kirstjen Nielsen, the homeland security secretary he'd previously chastised as weak on borders, to spar with reporters. Afterward, he tweeted he was pleased with her performance.

Even as late as Tuesday evening, Trump adamantly insisted to staff that his hardline stance on immigration -- the most potent issue of his 2016 presidential campaign -- would help the Republican Party with voters in November's midterm elections. He cast the issue as a cultural flashpoint that his conservative base would devour, such as his attacks on NFL players who kneel or his defense of Confederate statues.

But by the next morning, his attitude had changed. Nielsen, who'd become the face of the separation policy after the contentious briefing on Monday, was heckled at a Mexican restaurant a block from the White House. Republican lawmakers, who emerged from a Tuesday meeting with Trump unsure on how they'd be able to fix the problem, stepped up their calls for him to fix it himself.

Even his wife told him the situation was untenable, and to do something about it. And so, for one of the only times in his three-year-old political career, Trump backed down. Speaking from the Cabinet Room, the President captured his internal conflict.

"The dilemma is that if you're weak -- if you're weak, which some people would like you to be, if you're really, really, pathetically weak, the country's going to be overrun with millions of people," he said, gesticulating widely to illustrate the dueling options. "And if you're strong, then you don't have any heart. That's a tough dilemma. Perhaps I'd rather be strong, but that's a tough dilemma."

As quickly as Trump reversed course on the separation matter, speculation mounted over the fate of the advisers who crafted the policy: Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Miller, the 32-year-old policy aide who has drawn liberal ire for his uncompromising immigration stance.

Sessions, who announced and defended the "zero-tolerance" policy over the course of the past month, is already Trump's most hated Cabinet official for his recusal from the Russia investigation. One White House official said late Wednesday the immigration mess was unlikely to help his prospects.

Miller could also face internal rebuke, people familiar with the matter said. But he did not appear to be losing his stature right away. As Trump prepared to sign the executive order, he was seen by staffers outside on a bench near the Rose Garden, laughing and chatting with colleagues. He joined the President on Air Force One for his trip to a campaign rally in Duluth.

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