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Why President Trump Reversed His Position On Immigrant Families

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

All right, joining us now to talk about this reversal on the family separation policy is NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Hey, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.

KELLY: All right, first give me the brief lowdown. What exactly does this executive order actually order?

LIASSON: The executive order says that it's the policy of the administration to maintain family unity, including by detaining families together where consistent with law. So it allows families to be detained together while the adults face criminal proceedings because they crossed the border illegally. It also calls on the attorney general to prioritize cases, and it asks the Department of Justice to go to court to try to modify the Flores decision which restricts the number of days that you can keep a child in custody.

KELLY: Right.

LIASSON: What the order doesn't do is end the administration's zero-tolerance policy. In other words, it's going to prosecute everyone caught crossing the border illegally. That's the policy that has up until now resulted in the separation of families. So they're going to try to change that. The question is, why didn't they challenge Flores in the first place? The reason is because this policy and the separation of families was meant to be a deterrent. That's what many administration officials said. It was a deterrent that didn't work, and then it had a backlash.

KELLY: OK, so here's my question I - 'cause I can think of a lot of examples of President Trump refusing to back down in the face of a big controversy. I can think of almost none where he did back down. So what happened this time?

LIASSON: What happened is he got a tremendous amount of pushback. The president - as you just heard him talk about being strong versus weak, he wanted the credit for being tough on illegal immigration, but he didn't want to accept responsibility for the unpopular part of his tough policy. He got a tremendous amount of pushback from his allies, from Republicans on the hill, from evangelical leaders, from first ladies, including his own first lady...

KELLY: His own wife, yeah.

LIASSON: ...Melania Trump. The optics were very bad - the pictures of crying children, the audio of crying children. And Republicans were bracing for a new set of pictures, which were pictures of toddlers and babies who were in these tender age facilities. So he decided to do something he rarely does, which is make a tactical retreat.

KELLY: OK, but just a couple of days ago, we were hearing from his Homeland Security secretary, Kirstjen Nielsen, briefing at the White House, saying only Congress can fix this problem. So where's Congress?

LIASSON: Guess that wasn't the case.

KELLY: Well, apparently not.

LIASSON: Guess that was wrong and...

KELLY: Where does this leave Congress? What are they doing?

LIASSON: Well, Congress of course said, you can fix it. And guess what? He just did. It leaves Congress still considering, at least in the House, several bills to fix the last immigration crisis that Trump initiated when he took away deportation relief from the so-called DREAMers, young people brought here illegally as children. And there were a couple of bills in the house that were going to deal with that.

There have been a lot of possible compromises where Democrats were willing to give the president full funding for the wall in exchange for legalization of DREAMers, but he kept on insisting on other bigger changes, mostly a cut in the number of legal immigrants. So that still is before Congress - how to get a more comprehensive immigration fix. And of course there is talk in the Senate of legislating what the president just did. He said this is just temporary; hopefully Congress will pass a law legislating that kids can stay with their parents when they're detained.

KELLY: OK, and meanwhile, since I just IDed you as national political correspondent, let me briefly ask you about the politics here. President Trump has said he thinks immigration is going to be a great issue for Republicans to run on. How's that looking?

LIASSON: Well, it really splits Republicans. Most Republicans want to run on tax cuts and the economy. But today the headline in Breitbart was "Trump Buckles." So it could disappoint some of his hardcore base, which he usually tries to pay meticulous attention to. The question is when this crisis is over, it's not in the headlines, who is left more motivated, Democrats, who are horrified at this, or Republicans, who were disappointed that he caved? And the other question is...

KELLY: Quickly.

LIASSON: He's a big believer in the culture wars. Does this make it harder for him to use other culture war issues going forward?

KELLY: NPR's Mara Liasson, thank you.

LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.