The Slatest

The Most Audacious Moment From Kirstjen Nielsen’s Child-Separation Press Conference

U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen speaks to the press in front of an American flag.
U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen speaks to the press in front of an American flag.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen spoke to reporters in the White House briefing room on Monday about new administration policies that have reportedly led to more than 2,000 children being separated from their parents at the border over five weeks.

Nielsen continued to maintain her position that the policy that has led to this extraordinary increase in apparently indefinite family separations is not actually a policy to accomplish that aim. She denied that children being separated from their parents in this manner was inhumane. And she said that any suggestion to the contrary “completely disrespects” the public officials carrying out the policy. (Here is audio reportedly taken from inside a U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility of separated children crying for their parents as a Border Patrol agent jokes, “Well, we have an orchestra here. … What’s missing is a conductor.”)

While these claims seem to contradict what’s been reported to be happening on the ground, as well as the description from numerous other administration officials, they were not the most audacious part of Nielsen’s press conference. No, that came in the final moments of the conference, when she told a reporter that she was offended by the suggestion that the administration was using the policy to send a message for asylum seekers to keep out. Nielsen’s old boss at the Department of Homeland Security and the current chief of staff, John Kelly, has repeatedly said that such a practice would be exactly for that deterrent purpose. Nielsen took great umbrage when a reporter suggested the policy was intended to do exactly what Kelly has said it was intended to do.

Here’s the exchange from today’s press conference:

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

Nielsen: I find that offensive. No. Because why would I ever create a policy that ever does that.

Reporter: Perhaps as a deterrence?

Nielsen: No!

Reporter: The chief of staff said it was a deterrence.

Nielsen: That’s not the question that you asked me…

Here’s video of the exchange:

And here’s video of John Kelly from last year saying that he was considering the same policy that Nielsen has now enacted in order “to deter more movement” of asylum seekers coming from Central and South America.

That policy was ultimately not implemented under Kelly, but appears to now have been put in place by his successor.

Kelly, just last month, explicitly reiterated his understanding of this policy as a “deterrent.”

“A big name of the game is deterrence,” Kelly told NPR. “[Family separation] could be a tough deterrent—would be a tough deterrent.”

Reporters did not get to ask if Nielsen was similarly offended by Kelly’s statements, but perhaps they will if and when she addresses the press again.