Return to Transcripts main page


Trump Set to Meet With Putin; President Trump Requests Extended Detention For Migrant Children; Unclear When & How 2,300 Kids Will Be Reunited With Parents; Interview with Jeh Johnson. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired June 21, 2018 - 16:00   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Still no plan to reunite those 2,300 kids with their families.

THE LEAD starts right now.

Breaking news: Melania Trump making a surprise visit to children at the border, but did she hurt the message she was trying to send with an unfortunate wardrobe choice?

They're still frightened and confused and detained far from their parents, but are we now seeing the first moves to try to reunite these families after the president's executive order?

Plus, face to face, the wheels already in motion after President Trump says he's planning to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin, but will Mr. Trump confront the problem he wishes would just go away?

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

Mixed messages, mass confusion, and continued uncertainty for the 2,300-plus undocumented children seized from their parents by the U.S. government. President Trump is talking tough and blaming Democrats today after his dramatic reversal yesterday on his administration's own practice of separating every family crossing the southwest border illegally.

But while the president continues the blow off steam, his administration is scrambling to contain the fallout and the confusion over his hastily written executive order, changing his own policy of taking every undocumented immigrant child crossing the border from his or her parents, an order that may or may not be legal, an order may or may be effective.

And while the president is issuing conflicting messages, his daughter and wife are attempting to put a compassionate face on a most callous policy.

First lady Melania Trump making a surprise visit to a child detention facility in McAllen, Texas, earlier today, where she checked in on children between the ages of 12 and 17 being housed there. She pushed for them to be reunited with their parents. The first lady's office also issuing a statement bashing people in the

media who noted the odd choice of jacket the first lady bore as she boarded the plane to Texas, a Zara cargo jacket that had "I really don't care. Do you?" written on its back.

The first lady's office insisting there no significance to her wearing that jacket.

What is of questionable significance is the president's executive order, which continues to raise legal questions that Congress seems unwilling or unable to step in and address, and most compellingly there remain serious questions of how and even if the 2,300 children who have been separated from their moms and dads by the U.S. government will be returned to their parents.

That continuing uncertainty as we learn about a request from the Department of Defense to be prepared to house up to 20,000 unaccompanied children on U.S. military bases beginning as early as next month and running through the end of the year, according to a U.S. defense official.

CNN's Boris Sanchez joins me now live.

And, Boris, some mixed messages again today from the White House.


The administration straining to answer even basic questions about how this executive order that President Trump signed on Wednesday is going to be implemented, and the president himself today seemed to undercut it, questioning how effective it is going to be and even suggesting that it could lead to more family separations.


SANCHEZ (voice-over): Amid furor over his administration separating children from their parents at the U.S. border, President Trump again blamed others for the humanitarian and political crisis.

During a Cabinet meeting,, Trump invited Democrats to the White House to strike a deal on immigration before again taking aim.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It's whole big con job. In the meantime, people are suffering because of the Democrats. So, we have created and they have created and they have let it happen a massive child smuggling industry.

SANCHEZ: The president also charged that Democrats are refusing to fund the care of immigrant children.

D. TRUMP: They want us to take care of bed space and resources and personnel and take everybody, and, you know, like, let's run the most luxurious hotel in the world for everybody. But they don't want to give us the money.

SANCHEZ: Trump also sowing even more confusion about his new executive order. After initially saying his hands were tied, the president signed an order to end family separations Wednesday, leaving many questions unanswered, including what the administration plan to do with some 2,300 kids already separated from their parents, how they plan to locate those children's parents, and how government agencies will handle incoming immigrant families.

Administration officials scrambled to answer basic questions about the order, as Trump called it -- quote -- "limited." Even as the Department of Justice requested changes from a judge to help accommodate the order, the president told reporters it would ultimately lead to more separations anyway.

Meantime, first lady Melania Trump spent the day at the border.

MELANIA TRUMP, FIRST LADY: I would also like to ask you how I can help to these children to reunite with their families.


SANCHEZ: The first lady taking an unannounced tour of a Texas child detention center housing immigrant children after she was moved by recent images and sounds of kids separated from their parents.

The first lady told her staff she wanted to see the situation for herself and said to President Trump -- quote -- "I'm heading down to Texas."

Melania met with some of the children during class and thanked the center's staff.

M. TRUMP: They all know they're having -- they're here without their family. And I want to thank you for your hard work, your compassion and your kindness.


SANCHEZ: Now, Jake, that request by the Department of Justice would essentially overrun a portion of the Flores Settlement, that 1997 court decision that forces the federal government to release children to relatives after 20 days in detention.

It is going to be an uphill battle for the Department of Justice to get that request granted. The Obama administration tried to get that passed, and that was ultimately denied, Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Boris Sanchez at the White House, thanks so much.

Let's talk about all of this with my panel.

Kristin, let me start with you.

Melania Trump, an appearance at the border, it seems as though the administration, in addition to issuing that executive order, wants to try to put a compassionate face on all this, as opposed to I think it's fair to call it a callous face.


I think the president is someone who understands the power of visuals and knows that there have been a lot of really just horrifying, heartbreaking visuals that have been coming out of the story down at the border, and I think is hoping that by -- I would imagine that the White House would want Melania to go down there to try to provide some positive visuals around the story to try to make it seem as though they care about the outcome and welfare for these kids.

I think there's a difference between -- so there's both Melania and Ivanka who are often sort of deployed in these sorts of situations. In a case like this, where the problem is one of the administration's own making, in some ways, Ivanka, with a role as a senior adviser to her father with a job in the White House, I think it's much tougher for me to see her having as much of a role as let's go put a compassionate face on something.

If you're advising your father on policy, you bear responsibility for the outcome of those policies. In Melania's case, she is married to Donald Trump. So, I don't hold her responsible for the policies of the administration. And I'm glad that she's down there trying to bring attention to the issue.

TAPPER: Neera, you look skeptical.

NEERA TANDEN, PRESIDENT, CENTER FOR AMERICAN PROGRESS: I mean, at the heart of all of this, what we're dealing with is thousands of children who don't know where their parents are.

So the White House can send Melania, or Ivanka can tweet, but this is a -- this situation, which is really a humanitarian disaster, was created by Donald Trump and this White House, and needs to be fixed by Donald Trump and this White House.

And images at the border and Melania saying things like we should reunite families, the bottom line of this is, this is a mess that needs to be fixed today, this minute, because children are suffering.


And there's no sense yet at least that they have a plan. I think you are right they understand the power of the images, but they're in many ways past that point.

TANDEN: Absolutely.

HENDERSON: Of sort of images and symbolism.

They're kids who are 9 months old who are in New York shelters who, you know, are split off from their parents. So, yes, I think they probably thought this was a good idea. But if you listened closely to some of the conversations that she was having at that facility, some of those kids say they talk to their parents maybe twice a week. That's not a lot.

And it's a very sort of specialized facility. It's like 60 kids there between 12 and 17. Yes, I think 10 percent of them are people -- kids who have been separated from their parents. So, I mean, there's a certain way in which this was sort of propaganda from this White House.

Again, you know, you commend the -- Melania Trump for going down there. But it raises questions about those other more vulnerable kids and what these other facilities look like. We really don't know.

TANDEN: And I just think that the scale of this problem is beyond White House spin. I think it's beyond propaganda.

I think people in the country, all throughout the country are outraged about what's happening, the fact that Republicans can't muster votes for their bills. People are calling. People are calling Congress. They're flooding the phones out of anger. This isn't a P.R. thing to manage. This is a crisis that's affecting children and needs to be fixed.

TAPPER: And take a listen to President Trump earlier today meeting with his Cabinet blistering Democrats and his presidential predecessors on this issue. And he still supports a lot of policy that will make it difficult to reverse what he's already set in motion.


D. TRUMP: The only real solution is for Congress to close the catch and release loopholes that have fueled the child smuggling industry. The Democrats are causing tremendous damage and destruction and lives by not doing something about this.



TAPPER: He also said he doesn't want to hire more immigration judges that will expedite the process.

That's a big part of the bill that Ted Cruz put forward, hiring more immigration judges, so these cases can be expedited. Those who deserve to be granted asylum are granted asylum. Those who don't get deported, sent back to where they came from.

He seems to be getting in the way of solving the problem.


In every piece of polling that I have ever seen on the issue of immigration, one thing that both Democrats and Republicans can agree on is that the system doesn't work very well. Now, they may think it doesn't work very well for very different reasons, have very different ways they would like to fix it.

But backlogs and bureaucracy that prevent people from being dealt with, from being able to have an answer whether they can or cannot stay, and for that to be dealt with in a quick and efficient and yet also thorough process, means you need the manpower to do it.

So, I hope the president changes his mind on this. I think Senator Cruz is right. If we could have more people to be able to process those folks who are coming here, saying I'm here because I would like to claim asylum, that we can process that, hear their stories, verify whether or not it's true, and deal with them accordingly, you need more manpower to do it, or else you have these backlogs.

TAPPER: I want you to take a listen to Attorney General Jeff Sessions. He just gave an interview to the Christian Broadcasting Network in which says pretty much the exact opposite of what he said a few days ago on the issue of separating parents from their children.

Take a listen.


JEFF SESSIONS, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: Well, it hasn't been good. And the American people don't like the idea that we're separating families. We never really intended to do that.

If you're smuggling a child, then we are going to prosecute you. And that child will be separated from you probably, as required by law.


TAPPER: "We never really intended to do it," and yet a few days ago, clearly, that was the intention.

TANDEN: This White House has said, Jeff Sessions has said, the White House has said that this was a policy. John Kelly has said that they were adopting this policy as a deterrent.

It has failed. Then they said they were adopting this policy, basically taking these children and their families as hostage to get the wall, as a legislative strategy.

Now it's backfired. And they're, I think, basically lying to us about it. But the reality here is, if you listen to Donald Trump today, he is making the same kind of noises about this, that there's criminal gangs coming. He's basically still dehumanizing these people coming across the border. He's lying about Democrats.

If he wants to solve this problem, he should reverse course. But at the fundamental level, when he talks about migrants, immigrants as infesting the border, he throughout his campaign and throughout his presidency has dehumanized these people.

And that is what leads to a policy where you think it is OK to take babies from their mothers and put them in camps. And that's what Republicans have to struggle with and stop. And it's up to them to stop it now.

TAPPER: And, Nia, when the president met with Republican Caucus earlier this week, he said that "The crying babies doesn't look good politically." And he was looking at the political fallout, obviously. "TIME" magazine Photoshopped an image of one of those crying babies,

this little girl, taken from her mother -- I think she is from Guatemala -- with President Trump. That's obviously not an actual image, but a Photoshopped image.

But it's exactly the kind of thing President Trump is talking about.


It's -- you know, and, again, this is of his own making. And, you know, in some ways, to reverse this idea of him as a sort of heartless and lacking compassion, maybe he could have gone down to the border, and instead they have kind of outsourced the compassion to Melania Trump. Ivanka Trump also weighing in as well.

But he has had this idea that he's tough on the border and he's sort of a man's man, right, in terms of dealing with this, and it's up to the first lady and Ivanka Trump.


TAPPER: All right, everyone, stick around. We got a lot more to talk about.

One mother says this whole ordeal of having her son taken away from her, her young son, was like being stabbed in the chest. You're going do hear from her next. Stay with us.


[16:18:28] JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: So what about these families that have already been ripped apart by the U.S. government? A day after President Trump signed an executive order to end the widespread practice of taking children from their parents at the border, the Department of Health and Human Services is uncertain of the reunification process for more than 2,000 of these children.

Let me tell you about one of them. In just hours, an immigrant from Guatemala is hoping, hoping to be reunited with her 7-year-old son Darwin (ph) after appearing in federal court in Washington. The judge ordered Darwin to be flown to her. They have been separated for almost a month after Darwin was taken from her at an Arizona holding facility.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's not fair for a mother. It's like they're putting a knife in your chest and killing you. I want to see my son again, please!


TAPPER: She said it's like they're putting a knife in your chest and killing you. I want to see my son again, please.

Since they've been separated, the mother and son have only shared one phone call. The mother said he's never spoken to me with such sadness, with a knot in his throat. And this is just one of more than 2,000 of these stories caused by the U.S. government.

CNN's Polo Sandoval joins us now from the border.

Polo, any word on how and when others who have been separated might be reunited?

POLO SANDOVAL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, civil rights attorneys here in South Texas definitely want an answer to that question that there's still not a whole lot of clarification on. Today, some of those attorneys traveled here to the federal courthouse in McAllen and told me that they witnessed something that they haven't seen since the implementation of the zero tolerance policy, that is a U.S. attorney declining to file charges against some of these families crossing the border illegally.


[16:20:12] SANDOVAL (voice-over): In a Trump era of zero tolerance, these are among the first parents to be spared. A group of 17 undocumented immigrants of Central America were led out of a federal courthouse in McAllen, Texas. Federal charges against them were not filed. All of them have been recently separated from their children.

CARLOS GARCIA, IMMIGRATION LAWYER: I think it's a direct result of what's going on with our administration, that they're changing things on the fly.

SANDOVAL: The development comes in the aftermath of President Trump's executive order calling for families to be kept together but still be prosecuted for entering the U.S. illegally.

Civil rights attorney Efren Olivares was inside the courtroom.

(on camera): Was there a sense of relief?

EFREN OLIVARES, ATTORNEY WITH TEXAS CIVIL RIGHTS PROJECT: I don't think so because they're so confused and their main concern is their children.

SANDOVAL: When it comes to the fate of their children and some 2,300 others currently held in facilities such as this one, Health and Human Services admits: we are awaiting further guidance.

And while Customs and Border Protection has announced a new policy to keep newly detained families together, it does nothing for those already here and held apart, far apart. Young children taken from their parents at the southern U.S. border are being placed in detention centers in at least 17 states as far away as Michigan, Virginia and New York.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio telling CNN some 239 children are being held in the middle of Manhattan.

MAYOR BILL DE BLASIO (D), NEW YORK: We've gotten no notification from the U.S. government that children were being sent there from 2,000 miles away. And I went to visit a classroom, abou8t 30 or 40 young children from Guatemala, separated from their mothers, their parents, trying their best to make sense of the situation, it's appalling.

SANDOVAL: So, how and when will things change for them?

OLIVARES: It takes time. It's slow. It's not transparent, even for the attorneys representing these parents.

SANDOVAL: Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has approved a request for 21 military lawyers to be sent to with immigration cases. The Trump administration may need legal help, as well.

New York Governor Cuomo announcing his intent to file a state lawsuit against multiple federal agencies to, quote, swiftly reunite children with their parents and put an end to the abuse of immigrant families. We fully intend to move forward with the suit to prevent any further harm to the children in custody.


SANDOVAL: All right. So, tomorrow, there will be another wave of dockets at federal courthouses all along the border, Jake. We have reached out to the Department of Justice asking if the assistant U.S. attorneys will have similar moves again tomorrow, these moves to essentially not charge these families who are crossing the border illegally. They have not gotten back to us.

As for the Department of Health and Human Services though caring for these roughly 2,300 kids throughout the country, they are still evaluating, still waiting another marching orders to see exactly how they will be compliant with this executive order -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Polo Sandoval, thank you so much.

President Trump keeps blaming his predecessors for the crisis at the border. So, were families separated under the Obama administration? The head of the Department of Homeland Security under President Obama will join me next.


[16:27:27] TAPPER: In our politics lead, the fate of more than 2,000 migrant kids separated from their families by the U.S. government is still unclear after President Trump's 180 on this policy.

Joining me now is someone who had to dwell with an immigration crisis himself, former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, who held that role for four years under President Obama.

First of all, just clear something up for me because we've heard from this administration and from fact checkers that there was -- there were families separations that happened under the Obama administration and the Bush administration.

JEH JOHNSON, FORMER HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY UNDER PRES. OBAMA: Jake, there was no policy or practice, at least on my watch, to separate women, parents from their children.

TAPPER: There might be individual cases of it?

JOHNSON: I'm sure individual cases for reasons of health or safety. But we did not have that policy or practice and it's not something I would have adopted. It is not something I would have permitted.

TAPPER: So, your successor, Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen enacted this policy, along with Attorney General Jeff Sessions, zero tolerance, meaning anybody crossing the border illegally, whether they're seeking asylum or just seeking entry illegally, gets prosecuted and as that happens, they all get separated from their children.

What was your response when you heard that?

JOHNSON: Well, first, the actual policy and the messaging of the policy has been a moving target but what appears to have been the case up until yesterday was that the Department of Justice had adopted a zero tolerance policy where migrants would be prosecuted criminally in federal district court, and once the migrant is taken into Department of Justice custody if the migrant had a child with him or her, that child would have to be separated because you can't bring a child into pre-trial detention.

And so, it was an obvious conscious policy choice to make knowing full well that the child would be separated if you choose to prosecute the parent.

TAPPER: But you never did that as a policy? The Obama administration. There's been reports about how you discussed it, you talked about it.

JOHNSON: That is correct.

TAPPER: To deter people -- to deter people from coming across the border illegally. President Obama deported more undocumented immigrants than any other president I think.

JOHNSON: To be clear, just on my watch, three years, we deported, removed or repatriated about a million people, and particularly during the spike in 2014, when we had the rise in the families. I encouraged our border patrol, our immigration enforcement people to bring forth every available legally available idea. And so, I encouraged Tom Homan and Kevin McAleenan them to bring us the various options.

TAPPER: And one idea was separate -- prosecute everyone, separate kids from their parents and you didn't do it. Why?