Feinstein in the News

By Benjamin Wallace-Wells

Originally published in The New Yorker.

The orienting question in American politics often is “With whom is the President arguing?” When Donald Trump has the option to pick his opponent, he consults a short and familiar list: Hillary Clinton, James Comey, the F.B.I. He often argues with someone he’s no longer in conflict with, who doesn’t care to answer him, or who actually means to help. At a tense and pivotal meeting of the House Republican caucus, on Tuesday night, meant to plot a path through the outcry over family separations at the Mexican border, the President directed a rant at the outgoing Representative Mark Sanford, Republican of South Carolina. But, during the past week, as the family-separation crisis at the border has deepened, the White House has more often tried to turn it into a partisan political fight. “It’s the Democrats fault, they won’t give us the votes needed to pass good immigration legislation,” Trump tweeted on Wednesday morning. This makes some superficial sense, but it also demonstrates a deep misunderstanding of the nature of the President’s opponent.

Trump’s rhetoric has been consistent: he blames the Democrats for the family-separation policy, which he adopted unilaterally, and turns the issue over to Congress. “Now is the best opportunity ever for Congress to change the ridiculous and obsolete laws on immigration,” he tweeted on Tuesday. But Senate and House Republicans have failed to agree on an immigration bill that would end the family separations. Meanwhile, every Senate Democrat has signed a bill by Senator Dianne Feinstein that would prohibit the separations. No Republican has signed it, and it’s likely that none will. There have been no meaningful bipartisan negotiations, and the chances of them are slim. In fact, Democrats say, Congress is not needed. “The President can do it with his own pen,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said on Tuesday. Early Wednesday afternoon, Trump said that he would issue an executive order that would keep families together, suggesting how ably the Democrats had outmaneuvered him. Democratic leaders seem to understand, as clearly as at any moment since the airport demonstrations over the Administration’s first travel ban, that the essential political conflict of the Trump era does not take place in Washington, and that it is not about them.

As evidence of the scale of the family separations began to mount, early this month, elected Democrats took on an unusual role. They visited immigration detention centers, peering into them, and interviewing people when they could; they acted like reporters. On June 3rd, Senator Jeff Merkley, of Oregon, showed up in Brownsville, Texas, only to be denied access to a detention facility and threatened, by its supervisor, with removal by the police. Representative Pramila Jayapal, of Washington, a former immigration activist, managed to get inside a federal prison in her state, where mothers who had been separated from their children were being held. She described an atmosphere of fear and confusion: the mothers did not know how to find their children or how to reach an attorney. “Thank you so much for reporting that out for us,” an MSNBC host said, after Jayapal shared what she had seen.

Against the wide geography of the crisis, it has been instructive to watch how contained and airless the Republican response has been. On Monday afternoon, the Secretary of Homeland, Kirstjen Nielsen, gave a press conference; Attorney General Jeff Sessions sat for an interview with Laura Ingraham, on Fox News, that evening. On Tuesday, the President gave a rambling address to a small-business lobby and then spoke privately to the House Republican Conference. The family separations have dominated the news, but not one White House official has visited the border. In McAllen, Texas, reporting from outside a detention facility holding many of the children, Jacob Soboroff, an NBC News reporter, said that the most senior official he has seen there was probably a regional director of the Border Patrol.

Customs and Border Protection is, arguably, the federal agency whose employees are most loyal to Trump. But family separation requires the participation of thousands of other Americans, who do not necessarily share the Porder Patrol’s enthusiasm for the President’s policies. The first real glimpse inside the juvenile-detention centers came last week, from a man named Antar Davidson, who worked in one for four months. It was understaffed and poorly equipped, Davidson said, and he quit after his supervisor ordered him to separate three young siblings, who were crying and consoling one another. (Davidson now works as a staffer for a Democratic state representative in Arizona.) Detained children receive medical care from public-health doctors and nurses, and legal support from public-interest attorneys, and these professionals have helped expose the conditions in the facilities. On Tuesday, several of the nation’s governors, including some Republicans, withdrew National Guard troops who had been deployed to the border, in protest of the Administration’s policies. Last night, as news broke of the “tender-age” detention centers, where young children—infants and toddlers among them—are housed without their parents, the mayor of Houston, the Democrat Sylvester Turner, announced that a new facility had been planned for his city, but that he opposed it, and suggested that he would attempt to slow-walk any approval.

This Saturday, the first mass protests of the family separations will be held around the country. There, the backlash against the policy will become part of the larger movement against Trump’s Presidency. The resistance to Trump was built on uncertain ground, just after the Bernie Sanders campaign had posed the deepest challenge to the Democratic consensus since Watergate, and it is full of undetonated frictions. The resistance is a social-justice movement funded in large part by billionaires. It sometimes expresses itself in the optimistic twentieth-century tones of Senator Cory Booker and Representative Joseph Kennedy III, who see a moral country with an immoral President, and sometimes in the colder language of the democratic socialists, who see a coiling fascism; it is a street-protest movement whose ranks are filled by professional women. But, every time Trump tries a strong-man maneuver, these fissures matter less. In Washington, his opponent is the special counsel Robert Mueller, but elsewhere it is the resistance, which in its most vital form is not a partisan appendage but an anti-authoritarian movement.