The decision of the Trump administration to rescind former President Barack Obama's executive order allowing 800,000 children of illegal immigrants to remain in the United Statescame with a shocking sense of finality, despite speculation that Congress might come to their rescue.
President Donald Trump's flat statement that "we love the Dreamers" had a hollow ring, as Attorney General Jeff Sessions declared in no uncertain terms that his Department of Justice had no constitutional alternative but to wind down the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA) cherished by immigrant communities.
The very fact that Mr. Sessions made the televised announcement rather than the president himself was a rare and telling break from Mr. Trump's well-established preference for taking credit for major political decisions. It underscored the political storm certain to erupt in the wake of the blunt and unyielding justification that his administration had no legal alternative.
Mr. Sessions' role also confirmed his return to Mr. Trump's good graces after his decision to recuse himself from the investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election, It had infuriated Mr. Trump, to the point that MR. Sessions' removal from the cabinet had been widely anticipated.
Now the former longtime Alabama senator emerges again as a loyal and obedient Trump servant. He declared he was acting because Mr. Obama in his 2012 executive order had "sought to achieve specifically what the legislative branch refused to do" in bailing out the children brought into the country by their illegal immigrant parents.
Mr. Sessions called Mr. Obama's order an "open-ended circumvention of immigration law" through "unconstitutional exercise of authority by the executive branch." While Congress will be pressured now to provide legislative relief, Mr. Sessions said legal actions from Texas and other affected states against DACA likely would hold up under court review, leaving him with no choice.
The negative impact for the so-called dreamers came quickly, with the Department of Homeland Security saying it would no longer accept new applications for DACA relief. Up to now it had provided the issuance of renewable two-year work permits. The department also announced that those permits already received would be reviewed.
Mr. Sessions' declaration that Mr. Obama's DACA executive order was unconstitutional came even as Mr. Trump had repeated his sympathies for the dreamers' plight, saying he had "great heart" for them and reassuring them they could "rest easy" as matters would turn out satisfactorily for them in the end.
But almost at once, crowds of protesters showed up outside the White House, signaling an intensive lobbying effort of a Republican Congress that to date has shown little inclination to take up their fight. Mr. Trump for his part has seemed more than willing to kick the ball to Capitol Hill to dispose of it.
Acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke issued a memo phasing out DACA, saying "we were faced with two options: wind the program down in an orderly fashion that protects beneficiaries in the near term while working with Congress to pass legislation, or allow the judiciary to potentially shut the program down completely and immediately. We chose the least disruptive option."
House Speaker Paul Ryan earlier had said he disagreed with Mr. Trump in calling for an abrupt end of DACA, leaving its recipients in limbo. Nevertheless, he agreed it was a "clear abuse of executive authority" by Mr. Obama. He said he hoped Congress, "with the president's leadership, will be able to find consensus on a permanent legislative solution ... ensuring that those who have done nothing wrong" can continue to contribute to society.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi quickly condemned the decision, calling "quite possibly the cruelest thing President Trump has ever done." She asked Democrats to respond to a fundraising appeal to combat it.
Past Democratic efforts to enact permanent legal status to the young dreamers have gained no traction. Whether Mr. Trump will make some effort to soften the blow, after his expressions of compassion, will be an interesting test of his talent for talking out of both sides of his mouth, as illustrated again in his love-hate relationship with the ever-compliant Jeff Sessions.
Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.