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‘Border Wars’ examines what motivated Trump’s focus on immigration

The Trump administration’s policies around immigration and the U.S.-Mexico border have stirred major controversy for more than a year. Now a new book, “Border Wars,” examines how the administration implemented its “zero tolerance” policy and looked for other ways to keep migrants out of the country. Amna Nawaz talks to one of its co-authors, New York Times reporter Michael Shear.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit today on behalf of parents and children separated at the U.S.-Mexico border under the Trump administration's controversial zero tolerance policy.

    In "Border Wars," a new book out next week, we get a glimpse into how the administration put that controversial policy in place and looked for other ways to keep migrants out.

    Amna Nawaz has more.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That's right, Judy.

    New York Times reporters Michael Shear and Julie Hirschfeld Davis co-wrote that explosive new book.

    And Michael joins me here now.

    Welcome to the "NewsHour."

  • Michael Shear:

    Happy to be here.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, family separation, I think it's fair to say, was easily one of the more punitive measures you detail in this book and that we have seen from the Trump administration.

  • Michael Shear:


  • Amna Nawaz:

    It's worth remembering, when the idea was first floated by then DHS Secretary John Kelly, it had a lot of heat and a lot of backlash.

    What did you find out about why the administration pushed forward with it anyway?

  • Michael Shear:

    Well, John Kelly, I think, was cognizant of both the political implications and also the sort of moral implications of what was going to happen to the children.

    And I think he recognized when it was first floated that that was — the damage to the administration early on at the time. But inside the administration, allies of Stephen Miller, who has always been the president's architect of his immigration agenda, and allies of Jeff Sessions, who was the attorney general at the time, never let the idea go.

    They continued to believe, and I think still believe today, that it would be the most effective — it was going to be and would be the most effective deterrent.

    Essentially, their idea was, if you make coming into the United States as miserable and horrible as possible, people will stop doing it.

    And it percolated in the administration for the better part of a year, until the summer of last year, essentially, when they finally pushed it through, first at Justice, declaring kind of a zero tolerance policy that the attorney general announced.

    And then what they needed to do was to have the Department of Homeland Security decide, we're going to push all families over to Justice to be prosecuted, even if that means that they will be separated.

    And that's after — after much kind of deliberation, that's finally what they did.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And that was applied across the U.S. Southern border, as we saw unfold over that summer.

    You report in here, though, there were actually people in the administration arguing it should be spread even wider than that, into the interior of the U.S.

  • Michael Shear:


    I mean, there is a — there was a part of the administration that believed that just doing it at the border wasn't enough, that you had to apply a kind of zero tolerance policy across the board in the interior as well.

    That never carried the day. And, in fact, the — what we will never know is, if the president hadn't backed off after several weeks at the — of doing it at the border, whether that would have been the next step.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You know, more than any other issue, immigration has been central to this president's message, right?

    What is it about this one issue that draws a singular focus? Where does that come from?

  • Michael Shear:

    You know, that's a really good question.

    The president didn't — when he was coming campaigning for the — for — initially thinking about campaigning for the White House, it wasn't the first thing that came to mind. Trade was the first thing that came to mind.

    And when he talked about immigration, his advisers would see what the crowd — what that would do to the crowd. And, ultimately, they kept trying to get him to come back to immigration . They didn't want him to forget about it.

    The wall and the idea of building the wall was actually a pneumonic device for them, that they said, if they — they knew that he was a builder, he liked to build things. And they figured, if they could get him talking about wanting to build a wall, that he wouldn't forget to talk about immigration.

    But it — but the idea of running on it and then pushing it through as president, there's a — there's a part of him that just instinctively kind of tends to the Archie Bunker-like sort of bigoted view of sort of who should be in this country, who should be part of this country.

    And I think that's, at root, what drives him.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That wall has become sort of the physical embodiment of all of these policies and his view on immigration.

    You have written in there — you quote him in one of those meetings discussing what the wall should look like, what it should have around it, saying: "I want these people to be in horrible shape if they climb up."

    You have reported on — talking about him suggesting a moat around it, alligators, snakes, electrifying it.

    What is the obsession with the wall and also making it as harmful and violent as possible?

  • Michael Shear:

    I think there's two things.

    Part of it comes from his belief that the country shouldn't have more people coming in. He really firmly believes that. But it also — the extreme measures that he kept reaching for were part of a growing frustration over the last three years, in which, each time he saw a policy not being — not working, he would be told by his advisers, you can't do this, you can't do that.

    It's either illegal, Mr. President, it's immoral, it's impractical. And each time he got told no, he got more and more frustrated. And what we what we saw when — we talked to about 150 people for the book inside and outside the administration. And what a lot of them told us is that it wasn't like he would raise an idea once and then be convinced that it wasn't — wasn't possible.

    He came back to it again and again. So whether it was the idea of the wall with pointy spikes, or the moat, or shooting migrants in the legs, that — those were ideas that he would — he would be told no, and he would come back to again and again.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You detail one of those moments of frustration inside one of the White House meetings, where he's being told no, and he's got a list of visa numbers in front of him. He starts ticking down them.

    And you and Julie first reported this for The New York Times and broke the story back in December of last year. And he basically launches into a racist rant, calling everyone from Haiti, saying that they all have AIDS, saying Nigerians will never go back to their huts, calling all Afghans terrorists.

    When you look at that kind of language, and all of the policies that you detail in this book, what is it about the mission of this president when it comes to immigration? Does he just not want brown and black people to come into the country?

  • Michael Shear:

    You know, one of the things that I think we don't — I don't think we could sort of come to a final conclusion on is the question that I think a lot of people ask, which is, is this president a racist? Is he a xenophobic person?

    I don't know that I'm — even after writing this book, after a year of working on this, that I'm qualified to sort of look into his soul and know that.

    What you can say is that there were several times. That was one of them, calling S-hole countries another one. There been numerous times that he's both expressed racist language, as well as policies that essentially, in practice, do play out against brown, black people that are coming from other parts of the world.

    And so we asked him — we met with him in the Oval Office just this past June. We asked him, pointedly, do you worry that you are going to be remembered as a xenophobic president?

    And the answer he gave us was interesting. His first answer was, no, I don't think so. And then he said, I hope not, but maybe you're right. Maybe that's how I will be remembered. I hope that's not.

    And I think you could see in that both a sort of desire not to be sort of called a bad name, but also a recognition that he kind of understands the way people view him.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Michael Shear is the co-author, along with Julie Davis.

    The book is "Border Wars." It's out next week.

    Thanks very much.

  • Michael Shear:

    Thank you so much.

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