Before President Trump took off for the NATO summit yesterday, he stopped on the White House lawn and took some questions from reporters. In light of the failure of the government to meet a court imposed deadline to return all the little children under the age of five who were cruelly separated from their parents during the draconian "zero-tolerance" policy, a reporter asked the president:
Q: Reaction to latest deadline missed on child reunions?
Trump: “Well, I have a solution. Tell people not to come to our country illegally. That’s the solution. Don’t come to our country illegally. Come like other people do. Come legally.
Q: “Is that what you’re saying? you’re punishing the children?”
Trump: “I’m saying this: We have laws. We have borders. Don’t come to our country illegally. It’s not a good thing.”
Evidently, the age of those being punished is irrelevant in his mind as is the fact that applying for refugee status is perfectly legal. Perhaps these children should have "chosen" different parents? This issue has become more and more surreal as time goes on.
The AP reported earlier this week on a case in which the judge hearing a deportation case was faced with something so absurd that it's a wonder everyone in the courtroom didn't get up and run from the room screaming:
The 1-year-old boy in a green button-up shirt drank milk from a bottle, played with a small purple ball that lit up when it hit the ground and occasionally asked for “agua.”
Then it was the child’s turn for his court appearance before a Phoenix immigration judge, who could hardly contain his unease with the situation during the portion of the hearing where he asks immigrant defendants whether they understand the proceedings.
“I’m embarrassed to ask it, because I don’t know who you would explain it to, unless you think that a 1-year-old could learn immigration law,” Judge John W. Richardson told the lawyer representing the 1-year-old boy.
The separation of toddlers who can't even speak yet from their parents makes this particularly ludicrous and bizarre, but this same absurdist process happens to 7 to 10 year olds as well, none of whom are in a position to understand. But according to our president, that's the point. He clearly sees this policy as a tool for deterrence which has been deemed illegal by the courts.
But then he has said many times that he believes in using cruelty and violence against innocents to send a message. Most famously during the campaign he said this:
When you get these terrorists, you have to take out their families. They care about their lives. Don’t kid yourself. But they say they don’t care about their lives. You have to take out their families.
He's also claimed that "the wives know" and even conjured up some fantasy during one of the debates in which he claimed that the wives of the 9/11 hijackers all knew what was going to happen and flew out out of the country ahead of time. (They weren't married. There was no flight. But you knew that.) As president he's questioned why drone strikes should try to avoid civilian casualties.
The upshot is that he believes that families of people who have broken the law are automatically complicit. Evidently that includes even babies. And he says it right out loud.
It's not that American presidents haven't killed innocents or supported despots when it pleased them. The US government going back to the beginning has been hypocritical on human rights, starting with slavery and native American genocide. For years, the US defended some tyrants as "allies" while condemning others. During the Obama administration the press secretary even grotesquely quipped that a 15 year old victim of a drone strike "should have had a more responsible father" which is worthy of Trump himself. Nobody is saying that the US has ever been above reproach on the human rights scale.
But in the context of his aggressive hostility toward American allies and his courting of autocrats, Donald Trump's open contempt for human rights and the institutions that promote them is taking the US to a place it has not been for a century or more. He doesn't even deploy the old "hypocrisy as the tribute vice pays to virtue" by at least rhetorically promoting the ideals and values that most Americans used to teach their kids. He's blatantly selling a crude authoritarianism and millions of citizens are buying into it.
He has made it clear for some time that tyranny and state violence are simple facts of life with which he doesn't have a problem. Even as he disrespects America's traditional allies, he extols the virtues of leaders like North Korea's Kim Jong Un and Russia's Vladimir Putin. Take his comments after the Singapore Summit when he described Kim as a talented young man who took over a "very tough" country from his father. When Kim's abominable human rights record came up he replied:
Yeah, but so have a lot of other people done some really bad things. I mean, I could go through a lot of nations where a lot of bad things were done.
But that's not the first time he's rationalized the tyrannical regime of an authoritarian leader he admires. During the 2016 campaign MSNBC's Joe Scarborough asked about Russian president Vladimir Putin's unfortunate habit of killing critical journalists and he said “I think our country does plenty of killing also, Joe."
Putin's human rights record isn't quite as heinous as Kim Jong Un's but it is very bad. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists Russia is one of the deadliest countries in the world for journalists, many of them critics of government policies and corruption.
Trump has defended Putin from these charges even as he has (sort of) assured his ecstatic crowd that he wouldn't kill journalists himself even though he hates them.
Trump said on his way out of town that of the meetings he's having with NATO, the British government and Vladimir Putin, Putin was going to be "the easiest." That isn't surprising. The two leaders are philosophically a match made in heaven. Neither of them even pretends to care about human rights, and they are happy to say so right up front.