Special: Attorney General Jeff Sessions defends family separation at the border

Jun. 15, 2018 AT 9:13 p.m. EDT

The panelists shared their first-person accounts of the president’s trip to Singapore and also discussed the Trump administration’s defense of its “zero tolerance” immigration policy.

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ROBERT COSTA: Hello. I’m Robert Costa. And this is the Washington Week Extra , where we pick up online where we left off on the broadcast.

Joining me around the table, Mark Landler of The New York Times , Anne Gearan of The Washington Post , Susan Glasser of The New Yorker , and Jeff Zeleny of CNN.

History was made in Singapore this week when President Trump met with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to discuss eliminating his nuclear arsenal. It was the first time the leaders of the two countries have ever met. The event was covered extensively by American and international media, as thousands of journalists descended on the city-state for coverage of several hours of talks. Three of our panelists were in Singapore, and we want to hear their reflections – and Susan’s, too – about what it was like to cover this event. We’ll get to you soon, Susan, but first to the three that were there. I don’t mean that as a slight. We’ll just get to Jeff.

JEFF ZELENY: Well, it was fascinating, first and foremost, just that it was actually happening because it had been such a rollercoaster. It was off. It was on. But it was certainly on, and it was a production. Of course, we would expect nothing less. You know, it was in a historic hotel, a British colonial hotel just off of Singapore, Sentosa Island, so it was sort of steeped in history. But boy, just the images of these two leaders – 72-year-old president, 34-year-old leader – it was just remarkable in that respect. And it was clear to me that the – all the details were on that moment, the picture, et cetera. And the president was so confident after it. He held this hour-plus-long news conference, thinking everything really had gone perfectly and solved the problem and moving on. Of course, much more complicated than that. In many ways this is just the – that was the easy part. In many ways the hard part – in every way the hard part is yet to come.

ANNE GEARAN: Well, yes, absolutely the hard part is still to come. They issued a page-and-a-half document afterward which amounts to Kim Jong-un agreeing to things that North Korea has agreed to before, and they agreed to keep talking, and that means that Mike Pompeo has a whole lot of work ahead of him. I, though – I was struck by the pageantry, yes, the fact that this was clearly a set piece. But just the fact that it happened at all – the fact that the president of the United States, who eight months ago was calling Kim Jong-un – well, actually, at the State of the Union accurately calling Kim Jong-un a murderer, was walking confidently across a carpet to shake hands with Kim Jong-un, and the fact that Kim Jong-un wanted that to happen. And they – just the mere fact that we went from the drama and the nuclear brinksmanship of last year, and the U.S. focus on Otto Warmbier and North Korean human rights that took place at the end of last year and at the State of the Union, from that to a warm handshake. The body language from President Trump was exactly the same kind of body language he uses when he’s bringing somebody into the Oval Office. There was, you know, this sort of gentle touching and very – and lots of smiles and so forth. It’s extraordinary. Forget everything that happened as an outcome. The mere fact that that handshake took place is extraordinary.

MR. COSTA: What was your impression?

MARK LANDLER: I mean, I think a lot of reporters at an event that’s this staged live for the unexpected – the unexpected thing, and for me it was when – between the two days that we were there Kim Jong-un went out on the town and, you know, he visited one of the local gardens. And then he went to the Sands Hotel, which is a massive sort of casino-hotel kind of pleasure palace not far from where we were all staying, and he – you know, he took a selfie with the foreign minister of Singapore and seemed to have a fine time. And to me what I thought was significant about that, beyond it just being kind of crazy to watch, is that I think in a way the Singaporeans were giving him a message, and the message was if you play ball – if you go along with the president of the United States and think about giving up your nuclear arsenal – you can have this too. You know, maybe in a decade they’re building a Sands Hotel – or maybe in a decade they’re building a Trump hotel – in Pyongyang. And I think that there was something both spontaneous about it, but then it also felt in hindsight to be very much in keeping with the theme of this summit, which I think at the end of the day was so much a business proposition to Kim Jong-un. This was President Trump saying to Kim Jong-un, you know, I want to sell you a condo. I’m going to make a proposition to you that if you’re willing to play ball and give up your arsenal, you will get untold economic riches. You’ll get to live like the folks do here in Singapore.

MR. ZELENY: And trust me. I think the takeaway is the president said I trust him, I do trust him. We’ll see about that.

SUSAN GLASSER: Yeah, but I’m – you got to be skeptical about whether Kim Jong-un wants a McDonald’s in Pyongyang.

MR. COSTA: Doesn’t he like basketball?

MS. GLASSER: You know, but the North Korea, you know, watchers who really understand what works, why does the regime exist the say that it does right now, regime survival is the key to the Kim family over three generations. And, by the way, nuclear weapons have been defined by all three of those generations as the key to their survival and legitimacy on the world stage, so the idea that he’s going to trade away the dream of his father and grandfather in order to have a Trump hotel or McDonald’s is a very untested thing. Remember that Kim himself has lots of money and, you know, there’s all sorts of sanctions evasions. And, you know, the issue there that he is looking for is how to maintain a high enough standard of living for his people in order not to lose control over the government, and I think that, you know, we’ve accepted in a way Trump’s negotiating frame. I just don’t know the answer to it.

But just to bring it back to Anne’s point, which I think is THE point about this head-spinning nature of the week, and what does that mean for America’s position in the world, remember that the week began with President Trump just last Friday leaving Washington and headed towards this very contentious summit with his allies. And to me, the whole week has sort of been this sort of America’s Alice in Wonderland on the world stage week, where the president – and by the way, his closest economic advisors have spoken of Justin Trudeau as though he deserves a, quote, “special place in hell,” OK? At the same time we say the president of the United States is saying that the worst dictator in the world today loves his people and they love him back with great fervor. Now, let’s just take a minute to reflect upon that, because he hasn’t gotten rid of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, but what has happened is that we have changed the role and the meaning of the president of the United States’ words.

MS. GEARAN: I want to pick up on something you both said. I think that the age disparity and the – and the visual there, there is – there’s something behind that that the Trump administration is banking on, which is Kim’s youth. Yes, there are – there are a million and one North Korea experts and foreign policy experts in general who will say that North Korea will never give up its nuclear weapons because the entire state is built around that as the – not only the organizing principle, but the security guarantee. It’s what Kim – it’s what got Kim to this moment. But at the same time, what Trump – even though he probably wouldn’t put it quite this way – is betting here is that a guy that young, a guy in his 30s who is an absolute dictator wants to continue being an absolute dictator for many decades to come, and he potentially has many decades in front of him. He knows that the current system – the current state in North Korea is unsustainable. You cannot – no dictatorship has survived that many decades in that position of a tiny elite with every benefit and comfort imaginable and millions in starvation. It’s never worked before. And it’s possible that Kim understands that bargain and is willing to try to make a change. Would he – what would he bargain away and would it be enough? Who knows.

MR. COSTA: Final thing on North Korea. Any impressions about Kim himself that reporters picked up on engaging with his staff, engaging with engaging with reporters, talking to President Trump? He’s in this hermit kingdom in North Korea, and so few Westerners ever see him. Did anything come through?

MR. ZELENY: I think Mark raised the most fascinating point. On Monday evening in Singapore – and it’s a steamy, summer night. Sort of like Washington, but worse. And he’s still in his same outfit. But we had a sense that he was on the move. And I was actually at the Sands Hotel about 15 minutes before he got there. I left. You know, stupidly going to bed early because we had a big day the next day. He was out. And that was striking. It was pretty late at night, about 10:00 or so at night. And he was walking through all this. So that struck me. He’s very familiar with, you know, newer things.

And I think your point about the age thing, I think that that is an unknown question, because we don’t know. That could be the key to all of this. But he was very much enjoying it. And it was documented every minute because the state media of North Korea essentially was making a movie of this, showing their leader, their chairman, on the world stage there.

MS. GEARAN: Soft power playing out. It was amazing.

MR. ZELENY: It was really incredible. So that was extraordinary to see in the papers the next day.

MR. LANDLER: The only other thing I’ll say about him is – you know, and I think we began to see this during his meeting with Moon a couple of months ago – a few weeks ago, which is he had been perceived before then as this kind of weird, reclusive, oddly-dressed character. He showed himself with Moon to be a little looser and a little slicker than maybe we expected. And I think we saw a little more of that with President Trump. He was formal when the two men first shook hands. And Trump was kind of, you know, in a subtle way on the offensive, you know, putting his hand on his elbow. Later you saw Kim put his hand on Trump’s back. It’s like he’s a quick learner and he actually proves himself to be quite comfortable in a sense.

MR. COSTA: That picture sticks with you, his hand on President Trump’s suit.

The Trump administration – turning back home – the Trump administration is defending its zero-tolerance immigration policy. That is, their insistence on prosecuting undocumented immigrants who are seeking asylum, and to separate parents from their children. At least 2,000 children have been separated from their families since the policy was implemented, according to the Department of Homeland Security. The White House says that Democrats are to blame. Attorney General Jeff Sessions says it’s based on law, and on The Bible .

ATTORNEY GENERAL JEFF SESSIONS: (From video.) And I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13 to obey the laws of the government, because God has ordained the government for his purposes.

MR. COSTA: The House is scheduled to vote on two bills next week, a conservative bill and a compromise bill written by House leadership with moderate Republicans, that would prevent children from being separated at the border from their parents or legal guardian. It also includes $25 billion to build a wall along the Mexico border. The president told Fox and Friends this morning that he was looking at both pieces of legislation, but certainly wouldn’t sign the more moderate one – his quote – a comment that seemingly stepped on Republican efforts. The White House tried to clarify the president’s comments, but many questions remain.

This has become a human crisis for the U.S. And we’re talking about it in the webcast, do more next week on the show hopefully. Where does this end?

MS. GLASSER: Well, you know, I think you’re right. It is a human crisis. I have to admit, as a mother, I find it really hard to look at or even read some of these stories. And I’m a little bit struggling analytically to understand how Attorney General Sessions gets from The Bible says obey the law to America must separate children from their parents at the border. And it goes to your point earlier this evening, that everything is so partisan. This now seems to be an example of where we’re fighting over the basic facts. President Trump claims that it’s a law and also that it’s somehow Democrats’ law. Democrats say there’s no law, it’s a policy of the Trump administration and you can simply stop doing this at any time that you choose to do so.

It’s amazing that we’re arguing over the factual basis upon which these children are being separated from their parents. And meanwhile, by the way, the existing facilities that there are for children at the border are filled to bursting at the seams. There obviously has been a change in enforcement. And my guess is that when the full record of this comes out, when all the documents are released by FOIA and the like, you will see that this was a very specific policy shift that has had dramatic human consequences at the border.

MR. ZELENY: And the president continues to insist that this the fault of the Democrats. He said it again today in the White House North Lawn over and over and over. And the White House put out a very political document blaming the Democrats on this. The reality is, this is something the White House just a couple hours before this show here said the president misspoke, that he does support both pieces of legislation in the House next week. But I was struck by the other Bible verses going around – I was looking at Facebook right here, because I saw some earlier – the other Bible verses going around the internet today.

You know, there’s a lot in The Bible , including this from Matthew: You shut the door of the Kingdom of Heaven in people’s faces. A lot of people saying that you should not shut the door – a lot of people saying that Jeff Sessions, you know, is a little bit wrong talking about The Bible like that. Those images are horrifying. And I think we will see more coverage of it hopefully next week. This week’s been dominated by Singapore, but this is a crisis in our country.

MS. GEARAN: Those images are not a good look for Republicans in the midterm. Tent cities and crying children, screaming mothers. And yet, from Jeff Sessions’ perspective, from the Trump administration’s perspective, this is about politics. It is about following through on what the president pledged to do in securing the borders. It is about being able – him being able to say – and really it’s him. There are a whole lot of Republican candidates who actually don’t want to run on this at the midterms. But about the president being able to say that he – yes, this is a tough policy, but he said he wasn’t going to countenance illegal immigration. He wasn’t going to have the United States be a sanctuary country. And he will be – he will use these examples, as disturbing as the images are, to say that he followed through on that policy.

MR. COSTA: The confusion Friday maybe says it all. The House Republicans squirming to try to figure out some kind of immigration plan as the administration continues to hold its hard line.

MR. LANDLER: Well, I mean, they know that this is something that could come back to bite them. So I think it’s going to be this kind of awkward dance for some period of time. I wanted to point out one thing that I just – in the category of imagery that I thought was sort of interesting. It was a report actually that was on Jeff’s network, when they brought a number of journalists in to tour one of these facilities where they keep the children that have been separated from their families.

And it’s in a giant converted Walmart. And as you walk in, there’s a huge kind of iconic mural of Donald Trump. And I just – it just struck me as so strange that we have this kind of inhumane policy, and yet President Trump is going to brand it as a Trump production to a certain extent. I don’t think these murals get painted in these facilities by accident. So I just sort of – I sort of thought that was a very – that was an image that stayed with me, you know, as I thought about this issue.

MS. GEARAN: Well, he’s talking to the same base as he’s talking to on the trade issue. I mean, it’s – there’s a whole lot of the Republican Party that he’s not talking to with either of those issues. But a chunk of core Trump supporters feel very strongly on immigration and on trade, on the protectionist side. And he’s talking to those people.

MR. COSTA: You can say with the mural, you’re certainly owning it. You’re not running away from it. You’re putting your face right above the policy.

MS. GLASSER: Or maybe he’s distracting us from the fact that Mexico is not paying for the wall. So now little children are being –

MR. COSTA: That could be another showdown this fall. The Republican – the Trump allies in Congress are telling me they’re going to try to put up a fight. We’ll see, many challenges on the plate for House Republican leadership, that’s for sure.

And that’s it for this edition of the Washington Week Extra . While you’re online, check out the Washington Week -ly News Quiz. I’m Robert Costa. See you next time.

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