President Trump did not change his mind on Wednesday about the so-called "zero tolerance" policy that amounted to a de facto standing order to put bawling toddlers in cells while their parents were detained elsewhere over possible misdemeanors. To claim that Trump changed his mind would imply that it had been made up in the first place, that the president had settled views on the subject of immigration, or on any subject, and that he had thus directed his administration to imprison children in the hope of realizing some clearly defined purpose. This is obviously not the case.
The rationales for this policy have undergone a remarkable evolution in the last week. What began as a biblical imperative metamorphosed to an Obama-era directive to an unfortunate consequence of liberal judicial fiat to a tragedy that only Congress could fix, and ended as a bad memory that, we are told, will disappear with a stroke of the president's pen.
It is not even possible to argue that the policy was adopted cynically in the hope of forcing Congress to pass something favored by the president because there isn't a singular something favored by the president.
On Tuesday evening Trump simultaneously endorsed two radically different Republican immigration bills. It is not clear that he had read or even been made vaguely familiar with the contents of either prospective piece of legislation or that he even knew there were two bills rather than one. (One "top Republican lawmaker" reported to Politico that Trump "made comments like 'I'm behind it 1,000 percent,' but what is 'it'?")
The first bill, introduced by Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), was typical hardline stuff: ending DACA, making it a serious criminal offense to overstay a visa, and severely reducing the number of immigrants we accept either by lottery or through family connections. The other was remarkably similar to the old "Gang of Eight" bill defeated in the Senate four years ago, a moderate grab-bag of granting legal status and an eventual pathway to citizenship for those residing here under the terms of DACA, tinkering with the requirements for asylum seekers, and providing some funding for the fabled border wall.
What this proves is that, among other things, Trump is not himself an immigration hardliner. Whatever impression he might have given during the 2016 campaign, he does not know or care enough about the priorities of those who hold anti-immigration views to understand how radically opposed these two bills were. This does not reflect well on the president. It is just about possible, if you squint and maybe bang your head against a wall a few times, to see how for someone like Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who has held fixed views about immigration for decades now, it might have made sense to adopt a policy so ruthless that it forced Republicans in Congress to act and in the meantime ensured that fewer people would attempt to enter this country illegally. It would have been a bad policy because it did something that was wicked in itself, but it would have had the dubious benefit of being motivated by assumptions that, however bizarre and wrong-headed, were at least coherent.
What is Trump's excuse? If he thought that "getting tough" was an appropriate tactic for deterring migration or a useful means of forcing congressional Republicans to pass something, he would never have entertained the moderate bill. If he actually supported the hardline position he would not continue to insist, as he has for months, that Congress should pass a version of President Obama's DACA executive order to ensure permanent legal residence for those who were brought to this country by their parents as children. He isn't a hawk and he isn't a squish. He isn't anything except a person who likes to confidently say things on television and swaggeringly tweet things on the internet, and who says different things to different people at different times of day depending upon his moods.
Listening to the screams and sobs of frightened children and seeing images of them in cages over the last few days you might have found yourself asking why. Why was this necessary? What were its architects hoping to accomplish here? The answer is nothing.
The only conclusion that can be drawn in light of the president's seeming indifference to what, if any, bill Congress decided to pass and of the administration's endlessly shifting explanations of how the policy came to exist in the first place, is that this revolting spectacle took place for its own sake. Cruelty here was an end unto itself. Tears were the point rather than the unfortunately foreseeable consequence of the policy. What we were being asked to participate in, albeit from the comfortable vantage point of our television screens, was a rite of pain.
Thank God our revels now are ended.