The Trump administration says it needs to separate immigrant families because of the law. “Persons who violate the law of our nation are subject to prosecution,” said Attorney General Jeff Sessions, in a speech to religious leaders earlier this week. Sessions said the separation “is not unusual or unjustified,” and that the parents seeking asylum “are the ones who broke the law; they are the ones who endangered their own children on their trek.” To buttress his point, Sessions cited Romans 13, in which the Apostle Paul tells Christians to respect established laws.
Asked about Sessions’ speech, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters on Thursday that “it is very biblical to enforce the law,” and then turned to blaming Democrats. “The Democrats have failed to come to the table, failed to help this president close these loopholes and fix this problem,” she said, casting blame away from the administration. Trump echoed that line of attack on Friday, saying “That’s the law and that’s what the Democrats gave us.”
If taking children from parents to make a political point is grotesque, then citing “law and order” to do so is practically Kafka-esque. “The law” does not actually demand forcing families apart. “There is no law that requires immigrant families to be separated,” writes Dara Lind for Vox. “The decision to charge everyone crossing the border with illegal entry—and the decision to charge asylum seekers in criminal court rather than waiting to see if they qualify for asylum—are both decisions the Trump administration has made.”
But the Trump administration has shown no reverence for the law. The president violates it at will and undermines it whenever it suits his personal or political goals.
Last week, Sessions announced the Justice Department would not defend a law that actually exists—the Affordable Care Act—from a federal lawsuit. It’s not unprecedented for the Justice Department to decline to defend a law, but it is extremely rare. And in this case, the legal reasoning is a stretch.
Since last year’s repeal of the individual mandate by Trump and congressional Republicans, a handful of GOP states have argued that the ACA is now unconstitutional since, in their view, it was only constitutional because the mandate was considered a tax by the Supreme Court. If the tax doesn’t exist, then the law cannot stand. Legal scholars, including conservatives, think this is “ludicrous,” as Congress clearly intended to eliminate the mandate while keeping ACA reforms.
Trump himself has issued a series of high-profile pardons to prominent conservatives, undermining the rule of law that resulted in their convictions. Less consequential but still revealing is the story, reported by Politico, of the president’s habit of destroying his documents after reading them, an ongoing violation of the Presidential Records Act. “One person familiar with how Trump operates in the Oval Office said he would rip up ‘anything that happened to be on his desk that he was done with,’ ” according to Politico. “Some aides advised him to stop, but the habit proved difficult to break.”
Trump’s habit of casual law-breaking started long before he entered politics. In a suit filed this week against the Trump Foundation, New York Attorney General Barbara Underwood alleges a pattern of persistent and willful illegal behavior going back a decade in which Trump, his associates, and his campaign used the charitable foundation as a glorified slush fund. “As our investigation reveals, the Trump Foundation was little more than a checkbook for payments from Mr. Trump or his businesses to nonprofits, regardless of their purpose or legality,” says the lawsuit, which seeks to dissolve the charity. This included payments for campaign events, solicited by campaign officials like former manager Corey Lewandowski. The New York Times notes that “Trump himself signed annual I.R.S. filings, under penalty of perjury, in which he attested that the foundation did not engage in political activity.”
The special counsel investigation into Trump’s campaign shows a vast web of corruption and criminality that extends to Trump, his family, and his allies. His former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, was indicted on charges of conspiracy, money laundering, and making false statements. His former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, pleaded guilty to making false statements. His longtime lawyer and business associate, Michael Cohen, was a behind-the-scenes “fixer,” paying hush money to porn stars, arranging deals with Russian oligarchs, and collecting “consulting fees” from corporations seeking favor with the Trump administration. Cohen is now under federal investigation.
Neither Trump nor his allies care about “the law” as such. Their recourse to legalism—or biblical exegesis—is political, meant to deflect blame and portray themselves as helpless in the face of their obligations. In reality, they have a choice. And separating families is what they have chosen.