‘Don’t you have any empathy?’
It was little over a week ago that White House press secretary Sarah Sanders stood at the podium in the briefing room, refusing to answer pointed questions from Brian Karem, executive editor of Sentinel Newspapers and a CNN political analyst, about the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” immigration policy that resulted in thousands of children being separated from their parents after crossing the U.S. southern border.
“These people have nothing,” Karem said at the June 14 briefing. “They come to the border with nothing and you throw children in cages. You’re a parent. You’re a parent of young children. Don’t you have any empathy for what they go through?”
Sanders declined to answer the question, but it has followed her and members of the Trump administration as they have struggled to gain control of the latest controversy to engulf the White House: a humanitarian crisis of their own making.
‘Do we look away, or do we choose to see something of ourselves?’
Outside the White House, the outcry over the policy has been deafening, and moral outrage has poured in from all corners — including in essays by two former White House residents who had been reluctant to criticize Trump publicly.
“I appreciate the need to enforce and protect our international boundaries, but this zero-tolerance policy is cruel,” former first lady Laura Bush wrote in a Washington Post op-ed published on Sunday night. “It is immoral. And it breaks my heart.”
On Wednesday, which happened to be World Refugee Day, former President Barack Obama published a Facebook post urging readers to imagine themselves “in the shoes of others.”
“Imagine if you’d been born in a country where you grew up fearing for your life, and eventually the lives of your children,” Obama wrote. “A place where you finally found yourself so desperate to flee persecution, violence, and suffering that you’d be willing to travel thousands of miles under cover of darkness, enduring dangerous conditions, propelled forward by that very human impulse to create for our kids a better life.”
“That’s the reality for so many of the families whose plights we see and heart-rending cries we hear,” he continued. “And to watch those families broken apart in real time puts to us a very simple question: are we a nation that accepts the cruelty of ripping children from their parents’ arms, or are we a nation that values families, and works to keep them together? Do we look away, or do we choose to see something of ourselves and our children?”
‘You have to take the children away’
For much of the week, Trump tried desperately to shift blame for his administration’s controversial policy to Democrats, while others in his administration threw up a variety of confusing, misleading and sometimes contradictory explanations and defenses.
“I’ll say it very honestly. I’ll say it very straight,” Trump said in an address to the National Space Council at the White House on Monday. “It’s the Democrats’ fault.”
“The United States will not be a migrant camp and it will not be a refugee holding facility. Won’t be,” he added. “You look at what’s happening in Europe, you look at what’s happening in other places, we can’t allow that to happen to the United States. Not on my watch.”
In a tweet sent Tuesday Trump referred to illegal immigration with a word — “infest” — that reminded many observers of how Nazis called Jews “vermin.”
“Democrats are the problem,” Trump tweeted. “They don’t care about crime and want illegal immigrants, no matter how bad they may be, to pour into and infest our Country.”
On Tuesday, Trump said that his administration had no choice but to separate children from parents who cross the U.S. border illegally — before essentially admitting it does.
“When you are prosecute the parents for coming in illegally — which should happen — you have to take the children away,” Trump said in a speech to independent business owners in Washington, D.C.
In the next breath, though, Trump essentially admitted he did have a choice.
“You don’t have to prosecute them, but then we’re not prosecuting them for coming in illegally,” he said. “That’s not good.”
‘Perhaps I’d rather be strong’
But by Wednesday, the images of children being separated from their parents became too much even for Trump, who reversed course and signed an executive order to end the family separations.
“I didn’t like the sight or the feeling of families being separated,” Trump said. “So we’re keeping families together.”
The president seemed to suggest he had heard complaints about the policy from two women in his life.
“Ivanka feels very strongly. My wife feels very strongly about it,” he said. “I feel very strongly about it. I think anybody with a heart would feel very strongly about it.”
But Trump also explained the moral dilemma facing him — and hinted, rather tellingly, that he would not have reversed course if it were up to him.
“If you are really, really, pathetically weak, the country’s 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’d rather be strong.”
‘Welcome to America’
Speaking of imagery, Time magazine on Thursday released a striking cover depicting a towering Trump looking down at a crying immigrant child.
“It’s a telling image,” CNN’s Chris Cillizza wrote. “It shows the compassion gap that exists between the Trump administration’s ‘zero-tolerance’ border policy and the real-life people that are affected.”
On Friday, Sanders released a statement complaining about the cover.
“It’s shameful that dems and the media exploited this photo of a little girl to push their agenda,” Sanders tweeted.
On Twitter, Trump suggested that the stories of families torn apart by his policy were made up.
“We cannot allow our Country to be overrun by illegal immigrants as the Democrats tell their phony stories of sadness and grief, hoping it will help them in the elections,” Trump tweeted.
Earlier in the week, right-wing provocateur Ann Coulter claimed “child actors” were being used to sway public opinion.
“These child actors weeping and crying on all the other networks 24/7 right now,” Coulter said on Fox News before turning to the camera. “Do not fall for it, Mr. President.”
Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen began her week pushing back against mounting criticism and denying that there was a “policy” of taking children away from their parents.
“We do not have a policy of separating families at the border,” she tweeted on Sunday night. “Period.”
A defiant Nielsen defended the policy in a speech to the National Sheriffs’ Association in New Orleans, saying those in her department would “not apologize for doing our job.”
“We do not have the luxury of pretending that all individuals coming to this country as a family unit are, in fact, a family,” Nielsen said. “This administration has a simple message: If you cross the border illegally, we will prosecute you.
Nielsen was summoned back to the White House the same day by Sanders to brief reporters, calling it “offensive” to imply that the administration had a “policy” of separating parents from children at the border — even though it was the stated purpose of the controversial change in enforcement procedures put in place by the Trump administration.
Nielsen also said she was unfamiliar with photos, released by her own department, of hundreds of children in cages in one Texas facility.
She also claimed she had not heard an audio clip, released earlier in the day, of crying children who had been taken from their undocumented parents.
On Tuesday night, Nielsen was heckled by protesters as she dined at a Washington, D.C., Mexican restaurant.
By Thursday afternoon, Nielsen was standing alongside Trump in the Oval Office, holding the executive order President Trump signed to amend the policy she had said didn’t exist.
‘I really don’t care’
On Sunday, Stephanie Grisham, Melania Trump’s spokeswoman, issued a statement calling for the end of family separations that suggested she was sympathetic to the plight of immigrant children. “She believes we need to be a country that follows all laws, but also a country that governs with heart,” the statement read.
And on Thursday, Melania Trump made an unannounced visit to visit to an immigrant child detention center in Texas.
“She wants to see what’s real,” Grisham said. “She wanted to see as close to what she had been seeing on TV. She wants to see a realistic view of what’s happening.”
But while boarding her flight to Texas, Melania Trump was photographed wearing a jacket that read, “I REALLY DON’T CARE, DO U?”
“I asked if there was empathy,” CNN’s Karem tweeted Friday. “Like it or not, the answer seems to be: ‘I really don’t care.’”
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