Morning News Brief

Jun 21, 2018
Originally published on June 21, 2018 10:50 am
Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

A day can make a big difference in the Trump administration.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Yes, it sure can, even on one of its core issues, like immigration. Through Tuesday, President Trump and his officials had been insisting repeatedly that only Congress could end the separation of migrant children from their parents at the southern border even though that was a policy implemented by the Trump administration. Well, then yesterday, the president ended it on his own without anyone else's help.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We're signing an executive order. I consider it to be a very important executive order. It's about keeping families together.

INSKEEP: So what does that order do and not do? What questions are unanswered? This is really complicated, so let's begin pulling it apart with NPR's lead editor for politics Domenico Montanaro. Good morning, Sir.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: How does the president explain his reversal?

MONTANARO: You know, he largely glossed over it last night before thousands of people - members of his base in Minnesota. He, you know, essentially is saying that they're - that this is something that his administration has been dealing with and trying to deal with, but that the political pressure, really, is the thing that he wound up acting on here.

INSKEEP: And this is something that seemed to bother him - this order - even at the same time he implemented the order. And members of the administration were very enthused.

MONTANARO: They absolutely were. I mean, you know, you had his Homeland Security secretary just the day before, Kirstjen Nielsen, talking about how they have to enforce the law. They took a very hard line, and decided to take a little bit of the air out of the political pressure by deciding to sign this executive order.

INSKEEP: Yeah. Kirstjen Nielsen defended this at the White House podium. General - Attorney General Jeff Sessions did. John Kelly defended it on this very program. But yesterday, Vice President Mike Pence had a rather different sentiment.

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VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: What the president's made clear is we believe it's a false choice between whether we are a country of law and order, a country with borders and a country that demonstrates the compassion in the heart of the American people and respect for families.

INSKEEP: Just days before, Kirstjen Nielsen had insisted that was the choice - either do it our way, or we have chaos and no enforcement of the law. What changed about the administration's point of view?

MONTANARO: Well, really, this again has a lot to do with the political pressure that had been building. You know, we've heard from behind the scenes that apparently his daughter and the first lady were putting some pressure on him. But the biggest pressure that this president is susceptible to is - are the optics, you know?

He doesn't want to see these images on television showing children behind cages looking like they're, you know, in situations that are - that don't look humane. And he doesn't want to have to be blamed for that, which is why you continue to see, even though it's his policy, him not want to try to own this because the political optics of this were really terrible.

And the idea for this president - sure, his job's not on the line, but lots of moderate Republicans in the House, they certainly do have their jobs on the line, and they wanted this dealt with quickly.

INSKEEP: Aren't they still going to vote in the House on immigration legislation? Because we should underline, the president changed this one policy, but immigration is still a tangled mess.

MONTANARO: Yeah. We're watching that today. There are a couple competing measures in the House that we're not sure at this point have the votes to pass. How many times have we said that? And then the Senate is not wanting to take up either of those two House bills, wanting to do something more narrow that just ends family separation.

INSKEEP: OK. NPR's Domenico Montanaro, thanks.

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INSKEEP: OK, while family separations at the border will come to an end according to the president, that does not mean that people will be allowed to go free until their court dates.

GREENE: No, it doesn't. I mean, what President Trump's order spells out is that parents and children are going to be detained now together. But the thing is, the government has not figured out where they're going to house those families. And there's also the question of what's going to happen to the families who have already been separated.

INSKEEP: Yeah. The executive order says people will be detained under the law, but that is a hard extra phrase to follow - under the law. NPR's John Burnett is in Austin, Texas. He covers the border. Hey there, John.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Hey, Steve.

INSKEEP: So let's work through the complexities here, starting with 2,000-plus children who we believe were taken from their parents. How do they get reunited?

BURNETT: Well, the short answer is we just don't know. Health and Human Services, which is responsible for their care, has not said how or when they'll be reunited. They put out a statement late last night saying it's still early, and they're awaiting further guidance about the new executive order. They say reunification is always the ultimate goal.

But as you said, there are more than 2,300 immigrant kids, some of them as young as toddlers, who've been separated over the past six weeks. And they'll remain in these government-contracted shelters while their parents, many of whom don't know where their kids are, are in criminal or deportation proceedings.

Let's listen to Lee Gelernt. He's an immigration attorney with the ACLU who sued the government over these child separations.

LEE GELERNT: It says nothing about reuniting the children who have already been separated. We believe there may be thousands of young children who are sitting all by themselves, having been separated by their parents. This does nothing to put into place a process to reunite those children.

INSKEEP: And let's look at another phrase of the executive order. I'm looking at it here. It says that people will be detained - families will be detained together where appropriate and consistent with law and available resources. What is the plan to detain people consistent with law, given that a court ruling has said you can only keep children detained for 20 days or so?

BURNETT: So Immigration and Customs Enforcement has two big family detention facilities in South Texas. Together, with a smaller one in Berks, Pa., they have around 3,000 beds, and they're almost full. So remember, down here on the U.S.-Mexico border, they've been apprehending a thousand to 1,500 immigrants a day.

The Border Patrol announced last night it would start keeping families together and referring all the adults it catches for prosecution. So now if Trump says he wants to detain all of them, where are they going to put them? That's one reason the executive order directs the Secretary of Defense to find room on these military facilities for these immigrant families.

INSKEEP: There's the practical question of where to put people if you keep them for a long time, but how does the administration keep them for a long time if the court has said they got to be let go?

BURNETT: Right. Well, we're definitely headed for a showdown, and it's going to be in the Los Angeles federal courtroom of Judge Dolly Gee, an Obama nominee. This is Gene Hamilton, a counselor to Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

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GENE HAMILTON: The Department of Justice will soon execute the president's order and file the appropriate paperwork in Judge Gee's court in the very near future.

BURNETT: So the Trump administration, and Obama before him, were deeply frustrated at that ruling that Gee made. Three years ago, she said ICE family detention centers don't meet minimum child welfare standards and set the 20-day limit. And so the administration wants her to roll that back. It's probably unlikely she's going to. We'll have to wait and see.

INSKEEP: OK. John, thanks very much. Appreciate it.

BURNETT: You bet.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's John Burnett.

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INSKEEP: Now we heard earlier about a speech that President Trump delivered in Minnesota to supporters there. In that speech, he spoke of some achievements.

GREENE: And that includes reform efforts at the Department of Veterans Affairs, which is an agency that has seen so much scandal and mismanagement. Trump employed his familiar showman's flair.

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TRUMP: So we passed a bill that they've been trying to pass for almost 40 years. It's called VA Accountability, where now you bring the person into the office, and you say, Jim, I'm sorry to tell you, you're fired. Get out of here. Boom.

INSKEEP: He was referring to the VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act, which was supposed to improve how the bureaucracy is run and shield employees who call out fraud or abuse or mismanagement. NPR's Eric Westervelt has been reporting on this. Hey there, Eric.

ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: So what did you find when you asked if this law was working?

WESTERVELT: Well, you know, it's interesting. Some context to what the president mentioned. I mean, that law was intended, Steve, to both help the VA, you know, more easily fire employees for misconduct and get rid of, you know, bad managers, but also to protect staffers who bring, you know, about wrongdoing - bring it to light.

And some VA workers and oversight groups, Steve, are saying, look, this new law may be emboldening managers in some areas to go after whistleblowers - that they're abusing this law.

And certainly in Alabama - a lot of the employees we spoke to - that's certainly been the case. I found, down there, a pattern of retaliation against whistleblowers that was really quite extraordinary. People there who spoke up faced bullying, verbal abuse, isolation, denied requests. And in many cases, Steve, their managers would launch a counter investigation where you become the target.

INSKEEP: Wow. What happened to the mechanisms that there are supposed to be to protect whistleblowers?

WESTERVELT: It's interesting. I mean, the mechanisms are supposed to be there, but there's a growing sense, Steve, among some reform groups and whistleblowers themselves that an outside body may be needed to protect VA workers, you know, trying to expose mismanagement.

I mean, just this week, the VA seems to be at war with itself over how to handle whistleblowers. The inspector general of the VA wrote several scathing letters to the acting VA secretary demanding access to key documents and information about the - all these retaliation complaints that the VA's own office gets every month. And the acting VA secretary, you know, fired back saying, this is overstepping your authority.

So, Steve, you know, VA offices fighting each other openly certainly hasn't instilled confidence among whistleblowers the VA can really adequately police itself.

INSKEEP: Stunning number here. Almost 40 percent of all whistleblower retaliation complaints from the entire U.S. government come from the VA.

WESTERVELT: It is. It's hard to pinpoint, really, the genesis, Steve. But, you know, in Alabama anyway, it's just a culture of fear that is rampant there. And whistleblowers I talked to, they want it stopped. They want Congress and others to step in and do something about it.

INSKEEP: Some original reporting by NPR's Eric Westervelt. Eric, thanks very much.

WESTERVELT: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.