In two new interviews this week, President Donald Trump made brazen attempts to rewrite history about his administration’s ill-fated child separation policy, trying to shunt the blame to his predecessor Barack Obama.
In both instances, Trump dodged dogged questions about the family separation policy his administration implemented last year by asserting, falsely, that he inherited it from Obama. Heading into the 2020 campaign, Trump’s deflections indicate he’ll use baseless whataboutism when pressed about one of the most inhumane things his administration has done so far.
During an interview with Time, Trump was asked if he would consider reinstituting the child separation policy — something he reportedly wanted to do when he forced then-Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen to resign in April. But instead of addressing the question, Trump immediately tried to pin blame on Obama and characterized himself as “the one that put the families back together.”
While it’s true that Obama did, during a 2014 surge in migration, implement wide-scale detention of families, Trump’s administration chose a much harsher path. As part of a broader border crackdown, Trump instituted a “zero tolerance” policy in April 2018 that called for every illegal entry case to be prosecuted. That policy resulted in thousands of children being separated from their parents before Trump walked it back two months later, amid international outcry, with an executive order. (The ACLU estimates over 700 families have been separated since then due to loopholes in a federal ruling that ordered the Trump administration to reunify separated families.)
But here’s what Trump told Time (emphasis mine):
TIME: Would you consider reinstating the family separation policy?
TRUMP: So let me tell you about that. It’s very interesting. President Obama had separation. I’m the one that brought it together. I was the one, and what that did is it made more people come up because I didn’t like separation any more than you did. But if you look at those cells, where they were showing all these cells, they looked like jail cells or cyclone fence — but they look like jail cells. They were built in 2014 by Obama. I think you people had one of those pictures actually. You said look at these cells. It turned out they were built by Obama. They were built by people that I know very well. People that want to come into the Administration. But if you look at the separation policy, I had that policy, and then I’m the one that put the families back together. When you put the families back together, you have more families come up. It’s a very simple …
TIME: On your watch, sir —
TRUMP: No, but you understand what I’m saying.
TIME: Yeah, there were —
TRUMP: I inherited separation.
TIME: On your watch, there were families whose parents were separated from the children. They were deported. The children were left behind. And the agencies —
TRUMP: Well, they had that under Obama’s watch, too.
TIME: And the agencies didn’t keep good records, and have had a hard time reuniting —
TRUMP: Many of those records were Obama records, and they had separation and they had the exact same thing during the Obama years.
Trump made the same claim during an interview with Telemundo that served as his first with a Spanish-language television network since taking office.
“When I became president, President Obama had a separation policy — I didn’t have it, he had it,” Trump said. “I brought the families together. I’m the one that put them together ... President Obama is the one who built those prison cells.”
“I inherited separation, and I changed the plan, and I brought people together,” Trump added.
But Trump did not in fact bring people together — quite the opposite.
The difference between family separations during the Obama and Trump presidencies, briefly explained
It is true that migrant and asylum-seeking families were separated while Obama was president, but only in extraordinary circumstances. The Los Angeles Times’s Scott Martelle explains:
During the Obama administration, family separations were rare and predicated upon two conditions: whether border officials felt the parents or guardians posed a threat to the children, or whether the adults, under U.S. immigration law, had to be detained based on prior criminal convictions.
While Obama was undoubtedly tough on immigration — his administration still holds the record for most deportations — border officials used discretion during his presidency to determine which illegal crossing cases to prosecute. On the other hand, in April 2018, the Justice Department under then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions instituted a “zero tolerance” policy that called for every illegal entry case to be prosecuted. This resulted in children being separated from parents — even when the parents had done nothing more than try to cross the border.
Vox’s Dara Lind explained the difference between the Obama and Trump-era policies after zero tolerance was implemented last year:
It’s not that no family was ever separated at the border under the Obama administration. But former Obama administration officials specify that families were separated only in particular circumstances — for instance, if a father was carrying drugs — that went above and beyond a typical case of illegal entry.
We don’t know how often that happened, but we know it was not a widespread or standard practice.
Under the Trump administration, though, it became increasingly common. A test of “zero tolerance” along one sector of the border in summer 2017 led to an unknown number of family separations. Seven hundred families were separated between October 2017 and April 2018.
Trump’s zero-tolerance policy resulted in heart-rendering images of kids being kept in cage-like facilities, and parents being reunited with young children who didn’t seem to recognize them after long separations. By June of last year — after more than 2,300 families had been separated — Trump signed an executive order walking it back.
In short, Trump didn’t end family separations because of humanitarian concerns about an Obama-era policy, as he now wants people to believe. He ended it because of international backlash against an inhumane policy his own administration implemented.
The Time and Telemundo interviews aren’t the first time Trump has tried to blame Obama for family separations
Trump’s standard move when he’s been asked about family separations in recent months has been to deflect by trying to blame Obama.
In April, as reports swirled in the wake of Nielsen’s ouster that Trump was considering reinstating and strengthening policies that would again result in migrant and asylum-seeking families being separated, Trump told reporters during an Oval Office event that “Obama separated the children, by the way. Just so you understand — President Obama separated the children.”
But in the very next breath, Trump pivoted to defending the practice of separating children from their parents and detaining them, even while indicating he has no plans to resume doing it.
“Now I’ll tell you something — once you don’t have it, that’s why you see many more people coming,” he said. “They’re coming like it’s a picnic. Because ‘Let’s go to Disneyland.’ President Obama separated children. They had child separation. I was the one that changed it.”
As reporters are being ushered out of Oval Office, Trump abruptly says, "Obama separated the children, by the way. Just so you understand -- President Obama separated the children... I'm the one who stopped it... I was the one who changed it." pic.twitter.com/llLH0CinuZ— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) April 9, 2019
Shortly after that event ended, Trump tweeted out an old Fox News clip about children being held in overfull facilities during the height of the border crisis in 2014, when more than 47,000 unaccompanied children were apprehended trying to cross the border during just during the first eight months of the year.
Check this out - TRUTH! pic.twitter.com/2HNVeEpKDu— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 9, 2019
That video does show migrant children in detention facilities — images that some mistakenly blamed on Trump as outrage over family separations increased last year. But what it does not show are children who would’ve been separated from their parents under as many circumstances as was the case under the Trump’s administration’s ill-fated “zero tolerance” policy.
So Trump’s lies about family separation aren’t new. But the fact that he pushed the same false, revisionist history in two new interviews tells us something about how he plans to deflect from questions about his family separation policy heading into 2020.