In reality, however, Trump almost always folds when faced with a challenging dilemma: He didn’t brand China a currency manipulator. He didn’t pull out of NAFTA. He backed off threats to yank foreign aid over a UN vote. He was talked out of an abrupt withdrawal from Syria. He nearly yielded to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer on an immigration deal before his own aides restrained him. So while the speed of Trump’s reversal was enough to leave the nation with whiplash—barely 24 hours passed between Trump insisting that only Congress could fix separations to his signing an executive order aimed at doing just that—the result itself was in keeping with established patterns.
Consider also what happened after the violence in Charlottesville,Virginia, in August 2017. The current crisis has drawn comparisons with that one: Both are self-inflicted wounds for the White House; both involve racist rhetoric from the president, moral revulsion from the public, and condemnations from Republicans. Looking back from today, what sticks out most from Charlottesville was Trump’s insistence that there were “very fine people on both sides” of the white-supremacist march, but even that statement was just one of many. Nor do Trump’s actions in August fit the profile of a president who digs in and refuses to change course. The president waffled over the course of several days, first issuing a statement decrying “all sides,” then attempting a more conciliatory statement, and only thirdly landing on his most inflammatory remarks.