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Trump to sign executive action halting family separations

The furor over forcibly removing children from their parents has been sparking tensions inside the White House and among Trump’s allies.

Updated

President Donald Trump said he plans to sign an executive action on Wednesday that would end the administration’s policy of separating migrant families crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, abandoning the president’s previous stance that only Congress can fix the problem.

“The Republicans want security and insist on security for our country. And we will have that,” Trump said during a meeting at the White House with lawmakers and officials. “At the same time we have compassion and want to keep families together. It’s very important. I’ll be signing something in a little while that’s going to do that.”

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He added that he hopes his action will “matched by legislation.”

The action comes after Trump and his team faced harsh criticism from lawmakers, activists, religious leaders and former first ladies for the policy, which was panned almost universally as cruel and damaging to childrens’ well-being.

The decision was a remarkable shift from a president who is reluctant to cow to outside pressure. He often doubles down on his existing stance when confronted with criticism.

With cable news flashing images of migrant children in cages and lawmakers’ offices facing a flood of angry phone calls, the president and his allies sometimes appeared to be disconnected from disconnected from the uproar over the policy, which a recent poll showed was deeply unpopular across the country.

The furor reached new heights on Wednesday after the Associated Press reported that the administration is placing babies and toddlers in “tender age” shelters. The story capped a grim 24 hours that stood out as a low point even for a White House that long ago grew accustomed to operating in a perpetual state of crisis.

On Tuesday night, shortly before the AP story broke, Trump attended a $ 100,000-plus-per-person fundraiser at his hotel in Washington, D.C. Before that, he met with House Republicans at the Capitol, where he sounded off on everything from trade to fighter jets, while only briefly acknowledging the outcry over the situation at the U.S.-Mexico border.

“We have to take care of these separations,” he said, according to a person in the room, encouraging lawmakers to come up with a legislative fix and recounting that his daughter and adviser, Ivanka Trump, had raised concerns about the policy.

But behind the scenes, Trump has been paying close attention to the fallout, at times doubling down on the policy and complaining that Democrats are using the issue to sabotage him politically, while also signaling to aides that he wants the issue resolved quickly.

“It’s the Democrats fault, they won’t give us the votes needed to pass good immigration legislation,” Trump tweeted Wednesday. “They want open borders, which breeds horrible crime. Republicans want security. But I am working on something – it never ends!” The president also retweeted by Darrell Scott, a pastor and Trump supporter, that declared: “Once the mid terms are over, liberals won’t talk about detained or separated illegal immigrant children until 2020. #itsallpolitics.”

The White House remains hopeful that any legislation to end family separation will also include at least some of the president’s other priorities on immigration. But officials are ready to accept a more narrow legislative fix if they cannot win bigger concessions from Congress — an apparent recognition of the political risks of letting the uproar drag on.

Earlier Wednesday morning, Trump again defended his border security policies, while bashing the press. The tweet came one day after the president revived the divisive anti-immigration rhetoric that defined his presidential campaign, warning on Twitter on Tuesday that immigrants would “infest” the United States.

“The Fake News is not mentioning the safety and security of our Country when talking about illegal immigration,” he wrote on Twitter. “Our immigration laws are the weakest and worst anywhere in the world, and the Dems will do anything not to change them & to obstruct-want open borders which means crime!”

The swirling controversy has sparked tensions inside the White House and among Trump’s allies, again laying bare the divide between the president’s more moderate and hardline advisers.

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Some people close to Trump have encouraged him to double down on the policy, arguing that border security was one of the central pillars of his campaign and is deeply popular with his conservative base. But others have privately expressed disgust over the separations.

One Republican former Department of Homeland Security official who has ties to the Trump administration and asked for anonymity to talk about the policy put it bluntly: “I’m ashamed of what they’re doing.”

Some close to the White House acknowledged that Trump’s strategy of shifting blame to Congress isn’t working, and they have begun wondering what the president will do next, noting that he and his advisers are increasingly aware that the fallout is deeply damaging.

Trump is often hesitant to backtrack on his policy pronouncements, viewing such shifts as a sign of weakness. But some of his outside advisers believe the status quo is increasingly unsustainable, especially with a cascade of searing stories from the border describing children being kept in cages, leaked audio of separated children wailing for their parents and the plans for facilities to house very young children.

The AP story, which detailed “play rooms of crying preschool-age children in crisis,” struck a chord with many, prompting MSNBC host Rachel Maddow to break down in tears on her Tuesday night television show.

The story has given ammunition to Trump’s detractors, who paint his administration as callous and uncaring in the face of tragedy on the southern border.

Trump’s critics also pounced on an offensive comment by Trump’s former campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, on Fox News. When Democratic strategist Zac Petkanas referenced a report that a 10-year-old girl with down syndrome was among the children who had been separated from her family at the border, Lewandowski could be heard saying, “Womp, womp,” later adding that immigrants give up rights when they cross the border illegally.

Lewandowski is still firmly in Trump’s orbit, serving as an informal adviser and having recently joined Vice President Mike Pence’s political action committee.

Paul Ryan and Donald Trump are pictured. | Getty Images

In response to criticism of his remarks, Lewandowski complained on Twitter Wednesday that there was “lots of Fake News today” and argued he simply “mocked a liberal who attempted to politicize children as opposed to discussing the real issue which is fixing a broken immigration system.”

While some in Trump’s inner circle have defended the policy, lawmakers in both parties have condemned it. Even the pope has weighed in, telling Reuters that he agreed with recent comments by U.S. Catholic bishops who called the policy “immoral.”

Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen has faced a severe backlash for her role in implementing Trump’s policy and vigorously defending it. She was confronted by protesters on Tuesday night while dining at an upscale Mexican restaurant in Washington. “How can you enjoy a Mexican dinner as you’re deporting and imprisoning tens of thousands of people who come here seeking asylum in the United States?” one protester asked.

Nielsen left the restaurant and a DHS spokesman later said, “While having a work dinner tonight, the Secretary and her staff heard from a small group of protesters who share her concern with our current immigration laws that have created a crisis on our southern border. The Secretary encourages all — including this group — who want to see an immigration system that works, that contributes to our economy, that protects our security, and that reflects our values to reach out to Members of Congress and seek their support to close the terrible immigration loopholes that have made our system a mess.”

Trump, Nielsen and others have sought to shift the blame for the separations to Congress, arguing inaccurately that their hands are tied by the law. But experts said the administration, which has implemented a “zero tolerance” policy that calls for all illegal border crossers to be prosecuted, could stop the separations on its own without action from lawmakers.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders is expected to again face tough questions from reporters about the policy at her next televised briefing. But she is not expected to take questions in the White House briefing room on Wednesday because Trump is speaking at a rally in Minnesota.

Monday’s White House press briefing, which featured Nielsen defending the administration’s stance, was particularly contentious, with one reporter playing audio obtained by ProPublica of children wailing inside a U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility.

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