President Donald Trump showed no sign of backing down from his administration's migrant family separation policy Monday, despite mounting condemnation of the practice that threatens the political fortunes of the president and his Republican Party.
"I say it's — very strongly — the Democrats' fault. They're really obstructionist and they are obstructing. The United States will not be a migrant camp and it will not be a refugee holding facility — won't be," Trump said at an event about promoting American activity in outer space.
Trump appears to be using the White House's "zero tolerance" policy as leverage as he urges Congress to fund his proposed border wall and enact limits on legal immigration.
Even as images circulated of migrant children crying for their parents or sleeping on thin mattresses within cage-like metal structures, Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions showed no interest in abandoning the policy. Both contended that Congress needs to act to stop the practice — even though the Trump administration could do so on its own.
A new poll released Monday shows the electoral peril Trump could face in keeping up the policy. Sixty-six percent of American voters oppose separating families, while 27 percent support it, according to the Quinnipiac survey. Among independents — who will help to determine the outcome in many swing races in November — only 24 percent of voters say they back the practice, versus 68 percent who say they are against it.
In a tweet earlier Monday, the president also wrongly blamed Democrats for splitting up families and contended that Congress needs to take action. He urged the legislature to "change the laws!"
In comments before the National Space Council, he added: "If the Democrats would sit down instead of obstructing, we could have something done very quickly. Good for the children, good for the country, good for the world. It could take place quickly. We could have an immigration bill, we could have child separation. We're stuck with these horrible laws. They're horrible laws. What's happening is so sad. It's so sad. And it can be taken care of quickly and beautifully and we'll have safety."
However, it is his own administration's policy to separate immigrant children from their parents at the border. The president himself could immediately put an end to the practice without legislative action.
Speaking at a law enforcement conference Monday, Sessions defended the policy. He said "we do not want to separate parents from their children," but he also made no suggestion that the White House would stop the practice on its own.
"If we build the wall, if we pass legislation to end the lawlessness, we won't need to make these terrible choices. ... That is what we intend to do, and we ask Congress to be our partners in this effort," he said.
Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen also contended Monday that Congress needs to revise laws to end the policy. On Sunday, she claimed that the White House did not have a policy of separating families, contradicting other administration officials, including Sessions and policy advisor Stephen Miller, who have described the policy as a deterrent.
As the practice drags on, Trump may become even more associated with pictures of crying children isolated from their parents. Trump risks serious political damage if he chooses to use the widely condemned practice as leverage in the months before November's midterm elections.
The president's policy could damage the GOP brand ahead of critical elections in which Republicans try to hang on to majorities in both the House and Senate. Immigration is already a heated issue in the midterms, as some Democrats hoping to unseat Republicans in swing districts have contended incumbents have not done enough to protect young immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children.
The family separation issue could only get worse in the coming months: The number of immigrant children held by the Department of Health and Human Services could top 20,000 by August, NBC News reported, citing an HHS official.
Former Trump White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci said Monday the policy could hurt Trump's political political fortunes. He called the separation policy "atrocious" and "inhumane" and said the president should consider the "optics" of it.
"The president is very good at imagery," Scaramucci told CNN. "He's a television star. He understands that this is not good for him. It's not good for the Congress if we want to win the midterms."
In a note Monday, Fundstrat's Washington policy strategist Tom Block wrote the separation policy is "hurting" Republicans.
Trump has "struck a nerve" with the practice and has "been slow to appreciate" it, Greg Valliere, chief global strategist at Horizon Investments, wrote in a note Monday. He suggested that some Democrats could be content letting the issue go on, as it could motivate midterm voters.
Trump has promoted a strong U.S. economy and his efforts to get North Korea to abandon nuclear weapons as reasons to support Republicans in November's elections. But the family separation crisis and a mounting trade conflict with China have threatened to swallow up the good news Trump has to share.
Some Republicans have already slammed the administration policy and distanced themselves from it. Sen. Ben Sasse called the "new, discretionary choice" by the White House "wicked" and "harmful to kids."
"The president should immediately end this family separation policy," the Nebraska Republican said.
Rep. Will Hurd, R-Texas, told NPR that "taking kids from their mothers is not preventing terrorists or drugs from coming into this country." Sens. James Lankford, R-Okla., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., are among the other GOP lawmakers who have criticized the policy.
In an opinion piece in The Washington Post, former first lady Laura Bush called the practice "cruel" and "immoral," adding that it "breaks my heart." Condemnation has also come from several religious leaders, including evangelical leader Franklin Graham, who called the practice "disgraceful." The son of famed pastor Billy Graham is a Trump supporter.
In a tweet on Sunday, Trump seemed to acknowledge the importance of immigration as an election issue. He called on Democrats to "get together with their Republican counterparts on immigration" and suggested it would hurt the party's lawmakers if they did not.
"Don't wait until after the election because you are going to lose!" he tweeted.