SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
The overwhelming news of the week begins at the southern border of the United States - more than 2,300 children separated from their parents as they cross to seek asylum. The Trump administration said the separations were unfortunate but deterred illegal immigration. And many prominent members of the president's own party rose up to object. All living spouses of presidents denounced the policy. Laura Bush called it cruel and immoral. And President Trump signed an executive order to stop family separations. But as we speak today, that order may do nothing to reunite the children whose cries we heard in recordings from detention centers. NPR's Ron Elving joins us from Seattle. Ron, thanks for being with us.
RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Scott.
SIMON: Immigration seems to have become the No. 1 policy interest of the Trump administration now. Just this week, he said immigrants were infesting America. The U.S. economy is strong. Illegal border crossings have actually been trending down since 2000. What makes this issue so important to him?
ELVING: Let's go back to the election campaign he ran in 2015 and '16. Donald Trump announced his candidacy three years ago by denouncing immigrants on the southern border as criminals. He moved to the head of the pack in the primaries with his promise of a wall and a ban on Muslim immigrants. Now, overall, there were many elements to his victory in 2016, but his aggressive approach on immigration was a crucial link to his hardcore voters in the primaries and even now he seems regarded as the key to his political standing and his political future.
SIMON: And we have to ask bluntly this week, did the president and Kirstjen Nielsen, his Homeland Security secretary, lie directly to the American people?
ELVING: They both said repeatedly there was nothing they could do about the family separations until Congress changed the law. Then on Wednesday, Trump signed an order reversing the policy and said the crisis was over. Did they suddenly become aware of their own power to reverse their own previous order? That strains credulity beyond the breaking point.
SIMON: Yet polls show more than half of Republicans support the president on immigration. Has he remade the Republican Party?
ELVING: Not overnight and not all by himself. It's a change that's been taking place over decades. The Republicans helped Ronald Reagan pass a bill in the '80s that he himself called an amnesty bill for immigrants. But it's safe to say that Donald Trump in the past three years has completed the transformation.
SIMON: And yet Congress still can't pass an immigration bill.
ELVING: Well, the House Republican leadership has been promising votes on two bills. One, the more hard-line approach favored by the most conservative members, came to a vote this past week and fell far short of passage. The second more moderate version was supposed to get a vote, but it was delayed for a day and then for another day. Now, it may happen next week. But on Friday, the president suggested on Twitter that he thinks it might be better to wait and have Congress deal with all of this after the November election when he says there'll be more Republicans in Congress.
SIMON: Let's move to trade because counter tariffs have begun to kick in from Europe, China and Mexico. U.S. manufacturers and investors, the market, don’t like it. Why pick this quarrel now?
ELVING: This is another pillar of the president’s view of the world. He has long said that the United States is a victim in world trade, and he believes that a heavy dose of retaliation will bring China and Europe to their knees. Now, so far, it’s brought them to impose a heavy dose of retaliation of their own against American goods. So we are commencing a trade war. How long, how deep, how lasting - that will be - we’ll have to see.
SIMON: Ron, I’d like to end the week by marking a great conservative columnist, Charles Krauthammer, died. And another great conservative columnist, George Will, has a very outspoken column running this weekend.
ELVING: Yes, both Krauthammer and George Will rose with Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. Today, of course, Krauthammer would be known mostly for his work on Fox News. But both of these men had columns that were staples and standouts in newspapers all over the county. Both of them watched the conservative movement shift from the days of Goldwater to Nixon to Reagan and Bush, now to the populist waters with Trump. Charles Krauthammer died of cancer this week at age 68. George Will, over this last several years, has made a complete conversion because of Donald Trump. His rejection of Donald Trump has now led him to take a step further and tell people to vote against the party of Trump and vote for Democrats in the fall.
SIMON: Ron Elving, thanks so much.
ELVING: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.