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New report suggests DOJ was ‘driving force’ behind Trump’s family separations

Immigration policies that led to the separation of families at the U.S.-Mexico border remain among the Trump administration’s most controversial. Now, a New York Times report sheds additional light on who was involved in that effort -- and why they made the decisions they did. Amna Nawaz reports and talks to Katie Benner, one of the New York Times reporters who broke the story, about the fallout.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    It remains one of the most serious controversies of the Trump presidency so far, administration policies that led to the separation of many undocumented families at the Southern border.

    A report published overnight sheds new light on who was involved in that effort.

    Amna Nawaz has that.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Judy, the New York Times story is based off an exclusive look at a draft report that's still in the works by the Justice Department's internal watchdog. It's part of an ongoing review of the department's role in the Trump administration's disastrous zero tolerance policy that separated kids from parents at the U.S. Southern border.

    The review is based on internal e-mails, on documents, and interviews with more than 45 officials.

    Katie Benner is one of The New York Times reporters who broke the story, and she joins me now.

    Katie, welcome to the "NewsHour."

    If you think back to this family separation policy, so much of the focus, so much of the criticism has been on a different agency, on DHS, on Homeland Security, and on then head of the agency Kirstjen Nielsen.

    The draft report you saw, what does it shows about the Justice Department's role in that policy?

  • Katie Benner:

    This draft was put together by the Justice Department's inspector general, Michael Horowitz.

    And what he found was that Justice Department officials were — quote — "a driving force" in this policy.

    As you point out, DHS has really shouldered most of the blame. What Mr. Horowitz found was that former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, former Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, and others were not only a driving force, but they encouraged prosecutors to do things like disregard the age of children when thinking about separating them, by saying age was not a factor alone that could be used to decline prosecutions.

    You know, they really encourage prosecutors to take children away. They knew that there was pushback, but they also felt that it was necessary, a tool, as they told prosecutors, that could be used to deter illegal immigration.

    This is something that's been very little understood, and I think we see a lot of new revelations from this report in terms of how much moral authority the Justice Department chose not to have. They wanted to hide behind DHS, but, at the same time, how much control they had over the program.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    We should remind folks they were testing that program, it's been reported before, we reported here, as early as 2017, as kind of a pilot program along the Texas border.

    You report that some of the prosecutors, some of the Justice Department prosecutors, were alarmed when they started to see some of those separations happening, and they flagged their bosses to it.

    You reported one wrote to his superiors — quote — "We have now heard of us taking breast-feeding defendant moms away from their infants. I did not believe this until I looked at the duty log."

    Katie, what does the report say about how those officials, Mr. Sessions, Mr. Rosenstein, how they were considering the well-being of children, the potential impact of separation on kids?

  • Katie Benner:

    I think that what we see from the report is the officials, first of all, that they were so adamant that this would be a deterrent that was useful to the Justice Department and the Trump administration, that the welfare of the children came, I wouldn't even say second. It would be third, fourth, fifth, sixth on the list.

    And then we have also seen, for example, in former Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein's defense of his actions that he gave the inspector general, that he says, the welfare of the children was not our — quote, unquote — "equity," is how he described it.

    He said, the Justice Department was concerned with the adults involved, ones who be charged with misdemeanor crimes, but that the children, their welfare was really — it was up to the Department of Homeland Security to take care of that, really trying to abdicate any responsibility and any moral authority in that situation.

    It was a really sort of fascinating and interesting defense and one I think people are calling into question. You know, is it right for Department of Justice officials to say, we were just following orders?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And we know, of course, they rolled out that program across the entire border. That was announced by then Attorney General Jeff Sessions in April of 2018.

    It was so chaotic, so disastrous, the president had to walk it back. And after he did so, Jeff Sessions gave an interview talking about the policy. This was in the summer of 2018.

    Here's what he that did to say back then.

  • Jeff Sessions:

    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. What we intended to do was to make sure that adults who bring children into the country are charged with the crime they have committed.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Katie, did the draft report that you saw find that Mr. Sessions did not intend to separate families?

  • Katie Benner:

    The draft report not only found that Mr. Sessions intended to separate families. It found that he knew that his actions, the zero tolerance policy, would necessarily mean the separation of families.

    Now, the information that supports that allegation was given to him by people at the Department of Justice, including former Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. He tells the inspector general that Mr. Sessions was certainly cognizant of this.

    Now, also keep in mind, Jeff Sessions did not take part in the inspector general's inquiry. He declined to be interviewed by the Justice Department inspector general, Michael Horowitz. And he declined to comment for the story that was run by The New York Times yesterday.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, Katie, when do we expect the final draft of this report?

  • Katie Benner:

    There are people who expected the report to be out already.

    But there's been a lot of pushback from the Department of Justice on this report. And so it has been delayed while the inspector general deals with some of the criticisms coming from the department and department officials.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Katie, when we look back on this time, it is already looked at as one of the darker chapters in modern U.S. history, thousands of children forcibly separated by the government.

    It took a court stepping in to stop it, to reunite the kids. There are still children who have not been reunited. The report can't change anything that happened.

    But what could be the potential impact of this report when it is finalized and released?

  • Katie Benner:

    Yes, this report and likely reports that come after and more reporting that comes after it is going to give the country detailed accounts into the decision, not only decision-making that went into creating this program, but how government officials across the administration all wanted to abdicate more responsibility for the fate of the children.

    None of them wanted to be blamed for it. And it's going to be a really sort of searing look into what became a policy that resulted in what many people have described as a human rights crisis, as a crime against humanity, some have even said.

    And I think that, when we also look back in the history books, what was significant about the Trump administration, this is going to be one of the most significant chapters.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That is an exclusive and important story from Katie Benner of The New York Times, joining us tonight.

    Thank you so much, Katie.

  • Katie Benner:

    Thanks for having me.

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