The U.S. border policy under the Trump administration that for two months in mid-2018 separated children from their undocumented parents as a cruel means of deterrence was one of the early—and still most instructive—abominations of the Trump presidency. As time passes, expect Trump officials to edge away from responsibility for the program, as many already have. In fact, the finger-pointing and responsibility contortions started almost immediately after the public backlash against the policy. Then–Attorney General Jeff Sessions told CBN in June 2018 that the Trump administration “never really intended” to separate migrant children from their families. But a New York Times report on the coming Justice Department inspector general’s report tells a very different story—one of a policy that is a moral outrage and was pushed by DOJ officials at the very top of the central organ of American legal infrastructure.
Two officials at the forefront of the child separation effort, according to the draft IG report, were then–Attorney General Jeff Sessions and then–Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. In May 2018, when a handful of U.S. attorneys covering border states expressed concern about the push to use infants as leverage against migrants arriving in the country, Sessions explicitly advocated for the execution of the policy in a conference call. “We need to take away children,” Sessions told the prosecutors, according to participants’ shorthand notes of the call. “If care about kids, don’t bring them in. Won’t give amnesty to people with kids.” That was the Trump line, and let’s not forget Jeff Sessions was pushing it, no matter what he says now.
The report also fingers Rod Rosenstein, made famous by his role overseeing the Russia investigation after Sessions’ recusal. Rosenstein, the Times reports, “went even further in a second call about a week later, telling the five prosecutors that it did not matter how young the children were. He said that government lawyers should not have refused to prosecute two cases simply because the children were barely more than infants.” The U.S. attorney who had refused to prosecute those two cases, wrote his staff following the call that, per Rosenstein, “we should NOT be categorically declining immigration prosecutions of adults in family units because of the age of a child.” That was the Trump line, and let’s not forget Rod Rosenstein was pushing it, no matter what he says now.
The two-year internal investigation by Inspector General Michael Horowitz, which relies on more than 45 interviews with key officials, as well as a trove of other documents, determined that top officials at the DOJ were, in fact, “a driving force” behind the family separation policy. Sessions did not cooperate with the internal probe, and Rosenstein shrugged off any culpability in his response to the report. Much of the blame for the policy has been placed on the Department of Homeland Security and the president himself, and that is appropriate, but Sessions and Rosenstein are also key figures that bear responsibility for an inhumane “zero tolerance” policy that deliberately aimed to separate desperate families, leaving thousands of children in the care of the U.S. government. We all know what happened next: Chaos ensued, as children were separated from their parents for sometimes months at a time, doing lasting harm. Jeff Sessions and Rod Rosenstein helped make that happen. Let’s not forget that, no matter what they say now.