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“If you’re strong, then you don’t have any heart”: read the full transcript of Trump’s immigration meeting

The president said he may sign an executive order ending the practice of separating families at the border.

President Trump Meets With Congressional Leaders On Immigration In The Oval Office Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

President Donald Trump is reportedly going to sign an executive order ending his administration’s “zero tolerance” policy that forced families to be separated at the border.

The fierce bipartisan backlash to the policy has intensified in recent days, as more than 2,000 kids have been split from their parents in about five weeks.

At a meeting with Republican lawmakers, Trump still dodged responsibility for the family separation policy. “We want security for our country. The Republicans want security, and insist on security for our country,” Trump said Wednesday. “And we will have that at the same time we have compassion, we want to keep families together. It’s very important. I’ll be signing something in a little while that’s going to do that.”

Trump indicated that he’d be working with Congress on a fix and framed the issue as a “dilemma” with two choices: separating families or doing nothing.

“The dilemma is that if you’re weak, if you’re weak, which some people would like you to be, if you’re really, really pathetically weak, the country is going to be overrun with millions of people,” Trump said. “And if you’re strong, then you don’t have any heart. That’s a tough dilemma.”

“Perhaps I would rather be strong, but that’s a tough dilemma,” he added.

A rush transcript of the meeting follows.

TRUMP: We’re meeting right now on immigration, and we are very strong at the border and very strong on security. We want security for our country. The Republicans want security, and insist on security for our country. And we will have that at the same time we have compassion, we want to keep families together. It’s very important. I’ll be signing something in a little while that’s going to do that.

And the people in this room want to do that, and they’re working on various pieces of legislation to get it done. But I’ll be doing something that is somewhat preemptive, but ultimately, we’ll be met with some legislation, I’m sure.

We’re having a lot of problems with Democrats. They don’t care about lack of security. They would like to have open borders, where anybody in the world can just flow in, including from the Middle East, from anybody, anywhere, they can just flow into our country. Tremendous problems with that. Tremendous crime caused by that. We’re just not going to do it.

I do want to say that because we’re all so busy, and I just mentioned to the congressmen and the senators in the room, that we are going to cancel and postpone tomorrow’s congressional picnic. We have a congressional picnic tomorrow, and I was just walking over to the Oval Office and I said, “You know, it doesn’t feel right to have a picnic for Congress when we’re working on doing something very important.”

We have many things that are important. We’re talking about trade and many, many things. It didn’t feel exactly right to me. So we will be officially postponing the congressional picnic for tomorrow. We’ll make it another time when things are going extremely well. And they are going for the country extremely well. We have record-setting numbers in every way economically. But we want to solve this immigration problem, which has been going on for 20 years or more. It’s been going on forever. And we want to see if we can solve it. So we are canceling or postponing the congressional picnic tomorrow. Would anybody in the room have any question or statement that you would like to make while the press is here? Anybody? Anybody?

Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-AK): I’ll say one thing, Mr. President, on the issue of immigration, trade, investment, these are all areas where Congress has a lot of authority under the constitution and you have the authority, the executive branch has authority under the Constitution. I think that’s why meetings like this are really important, bringing the leadership on both sides together. So appreciate the opportunity to let you see our views, hear our views on these issues where we share authority on important matters. Thank you.

TRUMP: And we all very much have the same views. We want to keep family together, but we want to be strong on the border. Otherwise, you’ll have millions of people coming up, not thousands, but millions overtaking the country and we’re not letting that happen. So we have to be very strong on the border. But at the same time, we want to be very compassionate. Yes, Lamar?

SEN. LAMAR ALEXANDER (R-TN): President, thanks for having us. I think what Dan said was good. We really have — on the issues, on trade, immigration, we have a partnership under the Constitution. We have some authority, the president has some authority. We need to work together. I was thinking this morning when we look at President Nixon’s portrait in the White House, we think that he did the unexpected when he went to China, because he could do that. He was in a position to do that.

President Reagan did the unexpected, he went to the Berlin wall and Moscow. When we were here a year ago, I think I suggested to you that immigration, which has bedeviled us for 40 years, I believe you can — you’re the president who can help us solve immigration problem with your leadership. You may be able to do for immigration what Nixon did for China and Reagan did for the Soviet Union. A lot of us would like to work with you on that.

TRUMP: Thank you very much. We need the Democrats’ support, because we need their votes. It’s simple. People say we have a majority. Well, we have a one [seat] majority in the Senate. We need 60, unfortunately, we don’t go with the majority. We go with 60. That’s the way it is. We need 60 votes. We have 51 votes at the most. So we need Democrat votes in order to do it. Otherwise you can’t do it. Tom, you were going to say something?

SEN. TOM COTTON (R-AR): I think it’s very important that we protect our border. We cannot allow a child to be a get out of free card and get into the US. Free ticket. But as we’ve all said, we would like to keep families together at the border for the orderly and timely processing of the adult’s immigration claim. If it’s a lawful claim, we can admit them into the country. If not, they have to go back to their home country. We’re working on legislation that will allow our border patrol agents to keep families together at the border while we process their claims.

TRUMP: You bring up something I have to say, our border patrol agents and ICE Agents have done one great job. MS-13 comes into the country, we’re liberating towns in Long Island and other places. We’re throwing them out by the thousands, but we need laws that don’t allow them to come back in. Mac, do you have anything to say?

REP. MAC THORNBERRY (R-TX): Well, Mr. President, there are a number of issues that we’re going to be able to discuss today that touch on our country’s national security. And certainly controlling who and what comes across our border is an element of national security, as we do the compassionate thing with families. And I look forward to working with you, to further strengthen our military. Together, we have turned around a declining situation, but that’s also part of what we need to do together. Back to Lamar’s point, we both have responsibilities. We can do more together.

TRUMP: I will say, with all of the numbers that you see, if we weren’t strong on the border, you have have hundreds of thousands pouring through the border. They would be pouring through and the country would not be the country anymore. Lindsey?

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-SC): We’ve got a big massive mess that’s been going on for decades, and we’re all going to fix it one day, I hope.

We have a specific problem that puts the country in a dilemma. Here’s your dilemma, our dilemma, if a family shows up at the border, and we let the family go into the country and say please come back for your hearing, about 80 percent of the time the adults never show up for the hearing. I think most Americans feel like that is bad. And it will create a third wave of illegal immigration. I want to be fair to the people who came here under the old system, but I don’t want to create a third wave.

The other choice is, if you detain the parents who broke the law under the Flores decision, you have to break the family up. So there’s a 1997 Supreme Court case we would to deal with.

So I would urge my Democratic friends to find a way to keep families together, have a legislative fix of the Flores decision and argue about the other things later. Right now, you’re in a real bind, Mr. President. If you detain the adults, the law requires the children to be separated. If you let the adults into the country, they never show up.

It seems to me that we want to keep the family together and have the parents show up for their day in court. To Senator Schumer, I know there’s a lot we don’t agree on, but surely to goodness we can fix this court decision, because the country is in a bad spot, not just you.

TRUMP: Lindsey, the dilemma is that if you’re weak, if you’re weak, which some people would like you to be, if you’re really, really pathetically weak, the country is going to be overrun with millions of people. And if you’re strong, then you don’t have any heart. That’s a tough dilemma. Perhaps I would rather be strong, but that’s a tough dilemma.

SEN. RON JOHNSON (R-WI): At Homeland Security, we’ve held 30 hearings on border security. Senator Graham mentioned that we have these incentives. There’s nothing compassionate about enticing people to take this journey. We’ve seen pictures of dead bodies in the desert. There’s nothing compassionate about that.

Here’s what has happened since 2012. Prior to that, somewhere between 3,000, 4,000 unaccompanied children came into this country. Then DACA was instituted in 2012, and that problem skyrocketed. The numbers on it, about 225,000 incoming children from Central America, about — almost half a million family members. So we’ve got another 750,000 individuals, very sympathetic, and we have to stop those incentives.

The goal of our policy should be to reduce the flow of people coming into this country. That’s what strong enforcement actually does.

TRUMP: So just so everybody knows, this deal was just about done. We had a deal signed. President Obama signed DACA. When he signed it, he said I’m really not allowed to sign it, I’m going to sign it anyway. But he said I’m not allowed to sign this, never going to hold up. And they got a judge, who held it up and another one who held it up. Then we have a couple that turned it down, and it’s going to be a Supreme Court issue.

But before it was held up, everyone assumed that the DACA would not be held up, and we had a deal with the Democrats. It was a deal that everybody agreed to. It was $25 billion, we’re going to build a wall, take care of many, many different things, including loopholes. It was all done, except when this judge ruled in favor of DACA, meaning that it could continue until we get to the Supreme Court, all of a sudden they weren’t there anymore. And that’s what happened.

And that’s why we’re in this mess, because we had a couple of court decisions, which is going to force an issue to the Supreme Court that should be forced to the supreme court. Yes, John?

SEN. JOHN HOEVEN (R-ND): Thanks for inviting us up on these important issues and for having this discussion. Certainly on immigration, but also on trade.

The context that I want to make sure we talk about is, we’ve made incredible progress on tax relief and on regulatory relief. And it’s reflected in our economy. Now, if we can do the same thing on trade, think what that means for our country, in terms of economic growth, in terms of jobs, in terms of getting wages moving higher, and the impact that has for all Americans. So we have to look at it in that context. We talk about trade, it’s on top of tax relief, regulatory relief, and now if we can get the right policies in place on trade, think what that means for our country.

TRUMP: We’re doing very well on trade, I will say. We’ve been really hurt as a country on trade for many years, despite bad trade deals, we’re doing very well. Now we’re making very good trade deals. You’ll be seeing that. They will be announced pretty rapidly. We already have a couple that are made.

And honestly, we need people coming into our country, we have a lot of companies coming into our country. Chrysler just announced. We have FoxConn going up to Wisconsin, they make laptops and the Apple iPhone and — unbelievable company. We need people. We need people that work for these companies, because they’re coming in at a number nobody thought possible.

So we want people to come into our country, but I think I can speak for everybody at the table, we want them to come in based on merit. We want great people that will be great for our country. And we want them to come in based on merit. We’re going to need those people because we have so many people coming to our country. John?

SEN. JOHN CORNYN (R-TX): America is the most generous country in the world when it comes to legal immigration. We need to draw a clear line of legal immigration which benefits our country and illegal immigration. I want to make the point about being able to enforce the law and keep families together. It’s not a mutually exclusive choice. We can do both.

And I’m confident we will achieve that goal. But I just want to point out that coming from a border state like Mac [Thornberry] and I do, the borders — the illegality along the border is a complex problem, because it is, as somebody pointed out, it’s commodity agnostic. It’s people, drugs, weapons. You talk about an opioid crisis. It’s heroine that comes from Mexico. We need law and order along the border. We need to be compassionate the way we handle these families, but it’s important to remember that larger context, because the cartels and criminal organizations that benefit from this, they just are making a lot of money and keep thing situation very dangerous for everybody involved.

TRUMP: And John, in many ways they’re using their children and always they’re using the children as a ticket to getting into the country. We have to remember that. There’s a number of the 12,000 children, 2,000 are with the parents, and 10,000 came up with some really horrible people in some cases. You have the coyotes, you have the traffickers, the human traffickers. Not only drug traffickers, but the human traffickers. They use these children as passports to get into the country.

So we have to work on that, too. It’s a very complex issue. It’s been going on for many, many years, many, many decades. But we’re going to solve that along with a lot of other problems that we’ve already solved. We’re doing well at solving problems.

When I became president, we had North Korea, we had the Iran deal, which was no good. We had lots of problems with trade and bad trade deals. A lot of things that we solved and are solving.

That in theory I shouldn’t have had to solve. These are things that should have been solved for a long time. Even on trade. We should have never allowed -- our past leaders should have never allowed China to have a $500 billion trade deficit with the United States. When they went up, we should have gone up. We should have gone up together. Not we allowed one to get so far ahead. That includes the European Union and many others. Shouldn’t have happened. So we came at a time when there were plenty of problems to solve.

One of the big problems is immigration. I hope that -- I mean beyond just one problem of immigration. You can mention the word comprehensive or you don’t have to use it. A lot of politicians don’t like the word comprehensive immigration reform. But I think we have an opportunity to do the whole immigration picture, and that’s what I’m looking to do ultimately. But we want to fix this problem. Does anybody else — David, do you want to say something?

SEN. DAVID PERDUE (R-GA): Mr. President, the last year and a half has shown an absolute turn around in this economy. We were faced with eight years of 1.9 percent economic growth. We focused on regulation, energy, taxes. This year we put a Dodd-Frank Bill, and what this administration has done is freed up $6 trillion to go back into this economy. This is real job [growth]. 3.5 million new jobs. This economy is moving. The rest of the world is paying attention.

NATO has doubled their investment in terms of their military spends. We have a new free trade agreement with Korea. We’re heading in the right direction. I just hope we can focus on the priorities right now within this trade equation to get equal access. It’s not right when Ali Baba can do cloud computing, and Google can’t do it in China. We’ve reduced global poverty by two-thirds in the last 40 years and poverty in the United States has remained flat and this is moving to change that.

John, I appreciate the fact that you call attention to what’s really happening now with the economy. Due to two things — the tax bill and the regulations. You know, we were killing people with regulations. But what hasn’t been said around this table, and I’m surprised, the biggest accomplishment from your administration is what you’ve done with the military. You succeeded a president that had a policy who said you can’t do anything unless you do it with the nondefense, and we changed that. We had to vote for a lousy budget bill to do it, but nonetheless, it is change, and we are now rebuilding our military.

TRUMP: Military is really incredible. We’re ordering new planes, new ships, all jobs, too. Jobs I would say in this case is a far second. But we’re going to have a military like we’ve never had before, and it’s great. $700 million approved. And in this budget, $6 billion for opioids. Mike Pence, did you have something to say?

VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: Thank you, Mr. President. I know I speak for the President when I express the gratitude for the support of the members of the senate and house. You have delivered for the American people on national security, and rebuilding our military. Tax cuts and regulatory reform and restoring our economy.

What the president reiterated again yesterday, and he’s said every day from when he sought this office, we have a crisis of illegal immigration, and as the president made clear, we don’t want families to be separated. We don’t want children taken away from parents. But right now, under the law, and we said with these lawmakers, we only have two choices before us. Number one, don’t prosecute people who come into our country illegally, or prosecute them and then under court cases and the law, they have to be separated from their children.

What I want to be clear about is we’re calling on these lawmakers, Mr. President, not just to solve this problem in a way that affirms our commitment to law and order and compassion, which we can do. And there are proposals in the Senate and House to do that.

But the president’s vision articulated in his State of the Union address is let’s solve the whole problem. Let’s build a wall, let’s close the loopholes, let’s solve the problem for 1.8 million people that were brought into this country through no fault of their own, and let’s deal with law and order and compassion with this issue of family separation at our borders.

And I would say with great respect to the members of Congress, as the House considers legislation tomorrow, the Senate is considering legislation, the president has postponed the congressional picnic. We’re calling on Congress to act. Let’s roll our sleeves up and end this crisis of illegal immigration.

TRUMP: Thank you very much. Anybody else have anything to say? I think — yes.

REP. ADAM KINZINGER (R-IL): Mr. President, thank you. Just from the House perspective, as a currently serving [National Guard] member, there’s been a marked difference in the security and the good feelings in the military. They understand that we’re investing in them again, even though we’re asking them to do a lot.

And secondly, security plays a big role. That includes border security. The bill we’ll hopefully pass this week fully takes care of these issues. I wish Democrats would join us, because there’s a lot of stuff they like too. But unfortunately, I think they like the politics a little better. We wish you really didn’t take Secretary [of State Mike] Pompeo from the House because he did a great job. He’s doing a great job now.

TRUMP: Thank you. Appreciate it. Yes?

REP. LIZ CHENEY (R-WY): Thank you, Mr. President. I want to echo particularly what was said in terms of the change that we’ve seen in terms of resources for the military. We’ve got to make sure we don’t have another [crisis] in the military. We are working hard in the House. We’re hopeful we’ll pass a defense appropriations bill next week in the House. And we need to make sure that gets taken up and past in the Senate and we don’t give you another omnibus bill, that we get a straight defense appropriations bill taken up. And that will be very important.

TRUMP: Say hello to your father, please. Handsome guy. Thank you all very much. We appreciate it. [Overlapping speakers]


TRUMP: We are looking to keep families together. We’ll be signing an executive order. We are signing an executive order in a little while. We are going to keep families together. But we have to maintain toughness, or our country will be overrun by people, by crime, by all of the things that we don’t stand for, that we don’t want. So I’m going to be signing an executive order in a little while before I go to Minnesota.

But at the same time, I think you have to understand we’re keeping families together, but we have to keep our borders strong. We will be overrun with crime and with people that should not be in our country. [Overlapping speakers]

We’re going to see what happens.


TRUMP: Yes. Those images affect everybody. But I have to say, double standards. You have people that want absolute security and safety, and you have people that do look at the children and then you have people like me, and I think most of the people in this room, that want both.

We want the heart, but we also want strong borders, and we want no crime. We don’t want crime in this country. We don’t want people coming in — we don’t want people coming in from the Middle East through our border using children to get through the line. We don’t want that. We’re doing too good of a job to allow that to happen. So we’re not going to allow that to happen. Thank you very much. [Overlapping speakers]


TRUMP: This has been going on for 50 years, longer. This has been going on under President Obama, under President Bush. This has been going on for many, many years. We’ll see if we can solve it. This is not something that happened just now.

You look at the images from 2014, I was watching this morning, and they were showing images from 2014. They blow away what we’re looking at today. And that was not during this, that was during the Obama administration. I saw images that were horrible. And you know the ones I’m talking about. We’re going see if we can solve the immigration problem like we’ve solved so many other problems. And I think we’ll get it done. Thank you very much.

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