CBS’s “60 Minutes” ran a brutal report last night on Donald Trump’s policy of separating migrant families at the U.S./Mexico border. It painted a picture of an administration’s approach that was equal parts cruel, counter-productive, and incompetent.
At one point, the report featured comments from Cecilia Munoz, who handled immigration in the Obama administration as the director of the Domestic Policy Council, and who seemed amazed by the Trump administration officials’ ineptitude when implementing a policy that had bypassed any meaningful review before the White House ordered its implementation.
“They issued an order without consulting with the agencies who were responsible for carrying out that order,” Munoz explained. “We take better care of people’s effects when we send them to jail than we took care of the children who we took from their parents. And that’s because these decisions were clearly made at the top and pushed down to the agencies without thinking through the ramifications and without thinking through the potential harm.”
The president apparently saw the story and was unimpressed. He argued via Twitter:
“60 Minutes did a phony story about child separation when they know we had the exact same policy as the Obama Administration. In fact a picture of children in jails was used by other Fake Media to show how bad (cruel) we are, but it was in 2014 during O years.
“Obama separated children from parents, as did Bush etc., because that is the policy and law. I tried to keep them together but the problem is, when you do that, vast numbers of additional people storm the Border. So with Obama seperation [sic] is fine, but with Trump it’s not. Fake 60 Minutes!”
Taken at face value, Trump’s complaints about the CBS report being “phony” and “fake” were based entirely on one element: the president insists his policy was identical to his predecessors’, and since “60 Minutes” didn’t mention this, the whole segment should be discounted.
The trouble, of course, is that Trump’s argument is plainly and demonstrably wrong.
Part of the problem is the degree to which the Republican is playing a misguided rhetorical game. Trump tells his base that he has the guts to do what other presidents have not, implementing bold far-right policies that break with the weak agendas embraced by presidents like Barack Obama and George W. Bush.
When those same policies become the basis for an international fiasco, Trump is effectively reduced to saying, “But I’m just doing what Obama and Bush did.”
And then there’s the simple matter that Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy is unique. NBC News reported a while back:
The idea that this is simply a continuation of an Obama-era practice is “preposterous,” said Denise Gilman, director of the Immigration Clinic at the University of Texas Law School. “There were occasionally instances where you would find a separated family – maybe like one every six months to a year – and that was usually because there had been some actual individualized concern that there was a trafficking situation or that the parent wasn’t actually the parent.”
Once custody concerns were resolved, “there was pretty immediately reunification,” Gilman told NBC News. “There were not 2,000 kids in two months – it’s not the same universe,” she added.
Jeh Johnson, who served as homeland security secretary under Obama, said he did not separate children and parents despite the enormous surges of unaccompanied minors and families that came across the border in 2014 fleeing Central American violence.
“In three years on my watch, we probably deported or returned or repatriated about a million people to enforce border security. One of the things I could not do is separate a child from his or her mother, or literally pull a mother from his or her arms,” Johnson said on MSNBC last week. “I just couldn’t do it.”
Sarah Pierce of the Migration Policy Institute told the New York Times in June that neither the Bush nor Obama administration had a policy that had the effect of widespread family separation. “Nothing like what the Trump administration is doing has occurred before,” she said.
It’s possible Trump is so confused about current events that he actually believes his own rhetoric. It’s equally possible that he knows the truth and believes lying will make his agenda more politically palatable. Either way, the only thing “phony” and “fake” here is Trump’s defense of the indefensible.