Return to Transcripts main page


Family Separation Policy Firestorm; President Trump Says Undocumented Immigrants 'Infesting' Country; Source: Fearing Backlash, Trump Administration Don't Implement Family Separation Policy Earlier. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired June 19, 2018 - 16:00   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: A humanitarian crisis turning into a political one for President Trump.

THE LEAD starts right now.

The president now says that undocumented immigrants are -- quote -- "infesting" the United States, as Republican senators scramble to try to fix a political mess that President Trump created by enacting a new policy resulting in children being taken from their parents at the border.

They call themselves the lucky ones after the most terrifying couple of days of a young boy's life. CNN has the story of how this boy found his father at the border.

Plus, it is costing you. Stocks and your retirement accounts taking a hit as China accuses President Trump of blackmail and the president takes his trade war threat to a new level.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

TAPPER: Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We begin with breaking news in the politics lead. Senate Republicans sending a message to President Trump this afternoon that they are not going to stand with him on his new policy that has resulted in thousands of migrant children being taken from their moms and dads after being apprehended at the southwest border.

Moments ago, the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, announced that Senate Republicans are united in their determination to end this practice.


SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY), MAJORITY LEADER: I support and all of the members of the Republican Conference support a plan that keeps families together while their immigration status is determined.

(END VIDEO CLIP) TAPPER: That, of course, would theoretically override the new Trump administration's zero tolerance policy that took effect in the spring prompting criminal prosecutions of every single person apprehended at the border, which has resulted in thousands of children being taken from their parents, complete with heartbreaking images and haunting sounds of frightened, confused and screaming kids.

President Trump today desperately trying to regain control of the story tried to change the conversation to the largest topic of illegal immigration, today, President Trump using some of his darkest language yet, perhaps the harshest rhetoric that he's used about this issue since the opening day of his campaign, tweeting this morning -- quote -- "Democrats are the problem. They don't care about crime and want illegal immigrants, no matter how bad they may be, to pour into and infest our country, like MS-13. They can't win on their terrible policy, so they view them as potential voters."

You will notice the word of the dehumanizing word "infest" there applied to undocumented immigrants, part of the president's embrace of the politics of fear and division, talking about the -- quote -- "death and destruction" that's been caused by people coming into this country and suggesting that those of us in the media covering these children impacted by his new policy are helping criminals.




TRUMP: They are helping -- they are helping these smugglers and these traffickers like nobody would believe.


TAPPER: And as if that divisive rhetoric were not enough:


TRUMP: Democrats love open borders. Let the whole world come in. Let the whole world, MS-13, gang members from all over the place. Come on in. We have open borders. Some day, they're going to vote for Democrats.


TAPPER: The problem for President Trump is that even though 58 percent of Republican voters support his new policy, which prompts these children to be separated from their family, two-thirds of the overall American people, plus many Republican lawmakers, faith leaders and even former first lady Laura Bush, well, they do not.

The president and his administration defending this policy have lied and obfuscated and told half-truths about it, falsely blaming the new policy on Democrats, falsely denying it exists. And they cannot even seem to be able to get on the same page on some major points about the policy.

For instance, whether separating families and the overall zero tolerance policy is a deterrent for illegal immigration.

Here is Attorney General Jeff Sessions last night.


QUESTION: Are you considering this a deterrent?

JEFF SESSIONS, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: I see that the fact that no one was being prosecuted for this as a factor in a five-fold increase in four years in this kind of illegal immigration, so, yes, hopefully, people will get the message.


TAPPER: So, yes, zero tolerance is intended as a deterrent, says the attorney general.

But, just hours before, the homeland security secretary, Kirstjen Nielsen, seemed offended by the very notion.


QUESTION: Are you intending for this to play out as it is playing out? Are you intending for parents to be separated from their children? Are you intending to send a message?

KIRSTJEN NIELSEN, U.S. SECRETARY OF HOMELAND SECURITY: I -- I find that offensive. No, because what why would I ever create a policy that purposely does that?

QUESTION: Perhaps as is a deterrent.



TAPPER: Secretary Nielsen also denied having seen the heartbreaking images of children that have outraged and moved so many Americans, even though it was her agency that released some of the images. So we assume that the secretary has not heard this audio from ProPublica.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): Where are you from?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD (through translator): El Salvador.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD (through translator): Guatemala.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): Don't cry.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD (through translator): I want to go with my aunt.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): You're going to get there. Look, she will explain it and help you.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD (through translator): Dad!

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): I'm going to take you to speak to the person from your consulate, OK?


TAPPER: The sound of a child being taken from her father.

"The Wall Street Journal"'s conservative editorial board warning Republicans today that these images and sounds and the general topic of immigration could cost Republicans their majorities in the House and Senate this November.

Even some of the president's biggest political allies on Capitol Hill and elsewhere are turning against him. The president is scheduled to arrive at Capitol Hill in minutes.

We have this story covered from every angle.

Polo Sandoval is live for us at the border. He's talking to families who have children living in this terrifying limbo.

Jeff Zeleny starts us off from the White House.


JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): President Trump is still pointing the finger at Democrats over the crisis at the border.

TRUMP: Democrats love open borders. Let the whole world come in. Let the whole world, MS-13, gang members from all over the place. Come on in.

ZELENY: But it is his fellow Republicans who are giving him an earful. They're imploring his administration to overturn the zero tolerance policy of separating children from their parents when apprehended at the border.

SEN. ORRIN HATCH (R), UTAH: We ought to be doing everything in our power to bring the children together with their parents. So I'm -- I want to pause, so we can really approach these things intelligently.

ZELENY: Senator Orrin Hatch, often one of the most loyal Trump supporters, said, in the case of family separations, he's wrong. But the president is showing no signs of backing down, telling Congress to fix the impasse on immigration.

TRUMP: We can't let people pour in. They have got to go through the process. And maybe it is politically correct or maybe it's not. We have got to stop separation of the families. ZELENY: The White House has presented conflicting, confusing and misleading questions on what type of bill the president would sign.

TRUMP: I don't want children taken away from parents. And when you prosecute the parents for coming in illegally, which should happen, you have to take the children away.

ZELENY: These scarring images broadcast across the country and the world showing children being pulled away from their parents at border.

The Department of Homeland Security now saying more than 2,300 children have been detained. It has prompted a near revolt among Republicans.

SEN. MIKE ROUNDS (R), SOUTH DAKOTA: Only Congress can change the law. I also recognize that if the president wanted to, he could make modifications.

SEN. LISA MURKOWSKI (R), ALASKA: The secretary, the attorney general, the president, they could move on this tomorrow.

SEN. JAMES LANKFORD (R), OKLAHOMA: I think they are scrambling to try to figure out how to be able to handle this. I think they were legitimately surprised at the pushback that they've had.

ZELENY: Senator Ted Cruz facing reelection in Texas also pushing for immediate action.

SEN. TED CRUZ (R), TEXAS: All of us who are seeing these images of children being pulled away from moms and dads in tears, we're horrified. This has to stop.

ZELENY: The conservative editorial page at "The Wall Street Journal" weighing in with a scolding message. "Are Republicans trying to lose their majorities in Congress this November? We assume not. But you can't tell from the party's internal feuding over immigration that is fast becoming an election year nightmare over separating immigrant children from their parents."

The president is blaming nearly everyone except his own administration for a policy he could instantly reverse, blasting the media today.

TRUMP: They are helping these smugglers and these traffickers like nobody would believe. They know it. They know exactly what they're doing. And it should be stopped.


ZELENY: Now, Jake, in the next hour, the president is going up to Capitol Hill to meet with House Republicans, a previously scheduled meeting, to talk about a couple immigration bills.

But the question still remains -- and it is an open one -- what would the president support? Yesterday, officials here at the White House said he doesn't want a small fix, a narrow fix just on family separation. He wants it part of a larger plan. Of course, that includes the $25 billion for his border wall.

Unlikely to get that. But, Jake, the question today, is the president going to get an earful or not? Are representatives like Mia Love, Republican of Utah, going to say this is not a partisan issue, it is not a Republican-Democrat issue, it is a right or wrong issue, as she said in a statement?

Oftentimes, when the president goes to Capitol Hill, he talks, Republicans listen, and nothing happens. We will see if that is different today, because children, of course, are at stake -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Jeff Zeleny at the White House, thanks so much.

Let me bring in my panel.

Mia, let me start with you. Nia, I mean.

The president could stop this right now if he wanted to. He could call Jeff Sessions and stay stop this, it's prosecutorial discretion, you have to prosecute every single person and you don't have to separate these families.

Capitol Hill can do it. Will they?

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: That is the big question. Right? We will see what comes out of this meeting that the president is going to have on the House side.


There are a couple of bills that have been floating around there that some people say would fix it, but other people say wouldn't fix this.

And then there are any number of bills on the Senate side also floating around. There is a Feinstein proposal. There is one -- I think Heidi Heitkamp also has a proposal. Ted Cruz has a proposal.

So we will see. I think the big question is what the president is going to do. Is he going to say this narrow fix, as Jeff reported, a narrow fix isn't good enough and then go for a bigger bill?

But we know what happened with those bigger bills? We have been here before when they tried to do a DACA fix, they tried to do border security, they tried to have those four pillars the president wanted in a big comprehensive immigration bill and that went nowhere.

So, we will see what happens tonight going forward. But we do know that the president so far has dug in on this and is blaming Capitol Hill.

TAPPER: Symone and Scott, I want to hear from you, but we have to take a quick break.

In just moments, President Trump leaves for the Hill, where the entire Republican House Conference is against his separation policy -- Senate Conference, rather. Will he be willing to make any concessions? Stay with us.


[16:15:01] TAPPER: Some breaking news now just into CNN on the family separations at the border and the White House decision to implement the no -- the zero tolerance policy that is prompting it all.

According to a source talking to CNN, the Department of Homeland Security discussed this policy in the early months of the Trump administration as a deterrent to illegal immigration but it was bagged over a fear of backlash. The exact same backlash President Trump and his administration are experiencing right now.

I'm back with the panel.

Scott, we are still on this story, this controversy and now we have even more Republicans, the entire Senate Republican Conference saying, we don't want this to be going on.

SCOTT JENKINS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes, and the good news is the Senate Republicans realize it is a PR problem for the Republican Party and they want to do something about it legislatively. The trouble is, I'm not sure why the White House would sign off on a narrow fix if the president could fix it himself, why would he sign a bill essentially doing what he can already do himself.

If I were the White House, I might want more. And that's what we're looking for tonight. If the president goes up to Capitol Hill, meets with the House Republicans and asked them to pass a more robust immigration bill that has more in it than just a fix for these kids, then that goes over to the Senate and then what happens?

What I hear from the Senate is that the circumstances over there are no different than they were in February. They still don't have all of the Republicans together on a comprehensive plan. So, the politics of this tonight are still murky, although Leader McConnell's office thinks they zig today when the Democrats thought they were going to zag by unifying around the desire to end this policy.

SYMONE SANDERS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Scott just made a really important point. They still don't have all of the Republicans together. I'd like to remind everybody that the entirety of the Democratic Senate Caucus is united. They've all signed on to the Feinstein bill to stop this horrific separation of family and children at the border.

But the Republicans can't even get on the same page. Sol, when you see the president time after time again and folks in the administration trotting out and saying the Democrats could stop this, when the -- their own Republican caucus is not united, they are in fact not together. This is at the feet and on the hands of the Republican Party.

JENKINS: I will say to Symone, on one issue, you're right, the Democrats are unified on the Feinstein bill which the Republicans characterize as nothing more than codifying catch and release. I think you're going to see this revisit Joe Manchin, revisit Senator Donnelly, revisit Senator Heitkamp in the fall election. I really --


TAPPER: All the Senate Democrats up for reelection.

Catch and release, of course, is the policy of you catch the individuals crossing the border illegally and you let them go and say, come back for this court date and often they do not.

I want to play some sound for you, Nia. President Trump threatening today to cut aid to countries that allow this flow of illegal immigration.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: When countries abuse us by sending their people up, not their best, we're not going to give any more aid to those countries. Why the hell should we? Why should we?



TAPPER: Now, I'm not an expert on this issue. But most of the people it seems to me that are flooding and crossing the border are individuals who are either fleeing poverty or gang violence or, you know, completely dysfunctional government or domestic abuse. They're not being sent by the government of Honduras.

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL REPORTER: Right. But this is Donald Trump's rhetoric, right? And this is been his rhetoric for a while. In that in his speech, when he announced he was running for president, that was the idea that somehow Mexico was sending killers and rapists and murderers. So, this is part and parcel of Trumpism, this idea that there are bad savage people outside of this country, Muslim, for instance, he's talked about them in disparaging ways, people from African countries, he's talked about them in disparaging ways, as well as people from countries south of the border.

So, this idea that there is something that Americans have to fear from folks from other countries is part of Trumpism. As much as, you know, him talking about tariffs is part of Trumpism and that's why I think he's doubling down. You sort of can't have Trump if all of a sudden he's welcoming people to this country in a more humane way because he talks about them very often, as you pointed out in your opening in such dehumanizing terms.

TAPPER: And, Symone, one of the things that Scott expressed frustration with this, the fact that the administration, everybody is on a different page. One of the questions is, was this even a new policy? Of course, it was a new policy but the administration denied that it was. The White House in a tweet denied it was.

Take a listen to an official with the Department of Health and Human Services on a call with reporters earlier today.


STEVEN WAGNER, HHS OFFICIAL: This policy is relatively new. We are still working through the experience of reunifying kids with their parents after adjudication.


TAPPER: This policy is relatively new.

SANDERS: They are not on the same page.

Look, I don't know how -- we -- folks like myself should repeat it as many times as possible that the White House owns this policy. This is a Trump administration new policy. The Obama administration was not doing exactly this. The Obama administration immigration policy in some respects was nefarious but not this. The policy in my opinion was still way more humane than the Trump administration.

What we're seeing is something unprecedented that we haven't seen out of the last two presidents and something that the Trump administration can stop.

[16:20:03] The last point that I'll make, Jake, is the folks that are fleeing these countries, Honduras, Guatemala, or down the line, they -- the situation in these countries, the United States has been implicit in creating these unsettling governments.

And so, for Donald Trump to say that these governments are sending their worst people to the United States, that is actually not true. The United States has played a key role in upsetting the apple cart, if you will, in many of these countries.

TAPPER: Do you want to --

JENKINS: Yes, look, I think there are some bad people trying to come here and the American people expect the government to try to screen out the bad people but the reality is they are not all bad. Many are fleeing bad governments and bad situations.

And the reality is where U.S. foreign aid is most useful is in places that are unstable, where they're coming from. If they had stable places to live and stable economies, they wouldn't want to come here. They're fleeing danger.

America is worth the risk, so I don't agree with the idea of cutting off foreign aid to countries that are already in horrific shape.

TAPPER: That's one of the arguments behind foreign aid to provide funding so there is hope in Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador or whatever, so you don't get a flood of migrants into the country.

We have much more ahead. Stay with us. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) [16:25:16] TAPPER: We have some new numbers on the children separated from their families at the border. The Department of Homeland Security said today that 2,342 children were separated from their parents between May 5th and June 9th. And we are hearing some new heartbreaking stories from the border.

CNN's Polo Sandoval spoke with a father and son reunited after they have been ripped from each other's arms. They call themselves the lucky ones.

Polo, what did they have to tell you about their experience and the conditions inside of the detention center?

POLO SANDOVAL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, lucky because at least this father has his child by his side. We met Ever Alexander Gonzalez here in McAllen after he was released by the Department of Homeland Security, promising to come back for a court date. We accompanied him to a bus station here in downtown McAllen as he heads to Florida.

He was not subjected to the zero-tolerance policy which is raising many questions, exactly who is and why he was among the lucky ones. He seems to believe that it was because he didn't have a criminal record, this was his first time he entered the U.S. illegally. In the meantime, though, Mr. Gonzalez telling us about the situation back in his native El Salvador, saying that there are many people there, many parents there, preparing to make the journeys to the United States, who have no idea about this policy.


EVER ALEXANDER MOREJON GONZALEZ, IMMIGRANT FROM EL SALVADOR (through translator): In my country, I wasn't notified of this policy. Had I known, I wouldn't have risked my son's life. I would have stayed in my country.


SANDOVAL: Gonzalez separated from his 7-year-old son who you saw there by his side for a day and a half. It was certainly extremely painful. However, he certainly is grateful that he at least has his child with him today. They also told us a little bit about the situation there inside of these shelters. These are places that we have seen through handout video and pictures released by the government, and also we've heard from some of our lawmakers who have toured these facilities as well.

These two individuals who we spoke to here on the streets, Jake, describing some of the conditions there as inhumane before they were finally released and now headed to Florida. But just goes to show you, after living and working on this border for many years, I could tell you there are very different dynamics here at play. There are some of those that are subjected to short-term separation and those who are criminally charged and subjected to long-term separation, but those children don't know the difference.

TAPPER: Those images you showed us, Polo, the father holding his son's hand looked like he would never let go of that hand again.

Polo Sandoval, thank you so much for bringing that story to us.

We have breaking news into CNN about the FBI agent who sent the texts that were critical about President Trump during the campaign. Stay with us.