WASHINGTON - The Trump administration's move to separate immigrant families at the border and detain children apart from their parents spiraled into a humanitarian and political crisis Monday as the White House struggled to contain the growing public outcry.
The situation has become a moral test for President Donald Trump and his administration. The president on Monday voiced defiance and continued to falsely blame congressional Democrats for what he decried as a "horrible and tough" situation. But Trump is empowered to immediately order border agents to stop separating families as a result of his "zero tolerance" enforcement policy.
The president asserted that the parents illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border with their children "could be murderers and thieves and so much else," echoing his incendiary remarks about immigrants at his campaign launch in 2015. And in a series of dark tweets, the president warned that undocumented immigrants could increase gang crime and usher in cultural changes.
"The United States will not be a migrant camp, and it will not be a refugee holding facility," Trump said in midday speech. "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."
More than 2,300 children were taken from their parents at the border between May 5 and June 9, according to statistics released Monday by the Department of Homeland Security, with the pace of family separations growing over that period to nearly 70 a day.
The separations were roundly condemned - including by all four living former first ladies - as cruel, inhumane and un-American. Administration officials rejected former first lady Laura Bush's comparison of the detention centers to Japanese internment camps in World War II.
The White House said that people killed by illegal immigrants were the true victims because they were "permanently" separated from their family members, even listing crimes in a document that Trump aides shared with allies.
Though the administration has tried to present a public picture of steely resolve - vowing not to apologize for enforcing the law, as Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said Monday - senior officials have disagreed behind the scenes about the merits and morality of separating children from their parents.
"Parents who entered illegally are, by definition, criminals," Nielsen told reporters during an unusually contentious White House press briefing. "By entering our country illegally, often in dangerous circumstances, illegal immigrants have put their children at risk."
Nielsen maintained that her agency was merely enforcing existing law and said it was up to Congress to change the policy. "It is the beginning of the unraveling of democracy when the body who makes the laws, instead of changing them, tells the enforcement body not to enforce the law," she said.
But many lawmakers disagreed with that assessment.
"The White House can fix it if they want to," Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said. "I don't think there's any question about that."
Nielsen also said the administration is not using its "zero tolerance" policy to pressure Congress to act on Trump's broader immigration agenda or to deter migrants from coming to the country, contradicting comments from other administration officials, including Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Chief of Staff John Kelly and senior adviser Stephen Miller.
The crisis is garnering round-the-clock television news coverage, with journalists reporting about their first glimpses at the concrete-floor and metal-cage conditions of the detention centers.
Nielsen acknowledged she was not keeping pace with coverage of the crisis, including audio of wailing children published a few hours earlier by ProPublica. She said she did not know why the administration had released images Sunday of young boys in detention center cages at a Texas facility but not of young girls.
Trump has been closely monitoring the coverage, but has been suspicious of it, telling associates he believes the media cherry-picks the most dramatic images and stories to portray his administration in a negative light, according to one senior administration official.
The images in the media contrast with more positive photos Trump's aides have shown the president depicting detained children smiling, playing video games and exercising outside, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid.
Trump and his advisers were unable to stanch the wellspring of public opposition. Some Republican elected officials joined Democrats in sounding moral outrage and calling for an immediate end to the administration's family separation policy.
In an indication that GOP leaders fear negative ramifications in November's midterm elections, Rep. Steve Stivers of Ohio, who chairs the House Republicans' campaign arm, called on the administration to change its policy and "stop needlessly separating children from their families."
Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., said, "It's time for this ugly and inhumane practice to end. Now." He added, "It's never acceptable to use kids as bargaining chips in political process."
And Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., wrote in a statement, "Family separation is wicked. It is harmful to kids and absolutely should NOT be the default U.S. policy. Americans are better than this. . . .. The administration's decision to separate families is a new, discretionary choice."
Two polls released Monday showed the public overwhelmingly against separating the children of illegal immigrants from their parents at the border. A CNN survey found that 28 percent of Americans approve of the policy and 67 percent disapprove, while a Quinnipiac University poll had a similar finding, 27 percent of American voters approving of the policy and 66 percent disapproving.
Trump heads to Capitol Hill on Tuesday to meet with House Republicans and push for immigration legislation that would provide funding for his promised border wall, among other priorities. Senior administration officials suggested the humanitarian crisis at the border was leverage to force legislators to pass such a law.
"We do not want to separate parents from their children," Sessions, an architect and key defender of the policy, said in a speech Monday. "If we build the wall, if we pass legislation to end the lawlessness, we won't face these terrible choices."
House Republicans are expected to vote this week on two immigration bills - a hard-line measure drafted by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., and a second bill cast as a compromise between the moderate and conservative wings of the GOP.
House leaders were rushing to insert provisions into both House measures that would not separate parents from their children, according to a senior GOP aide, and allow children to be detained indefinitely with their parents. The prospect of passage for either bill is murky at best. If neither bill garners the necessary support, lawmakers would have to decide whether to introduce a stand-alone bill addressing family separation.
Trump's position has been unclear. The president said in a television interview last Friday that he would not sign the more "moderate" of the two measures, launching a day of confusion and chaos on Capitol Hill that forced White House officials to clarify that Trump, in fact, supports both bills. Ahead of Tuesday's meeting, Republicans said they hoped Trump would personally deliver assurances that he backs their plan.
Trump considers immigration a winning issue for him politically, advisers said. The president has complained repeatedly in recent months that he looks "weak" on border enforcement and has been concerned his base could turn on him for not being tougher, according to a senior administration official.
A second administration official said Trump is in agreement with Miller, a hard line influence on the administration, in believing, "If we're having an argument on immigration, we always win because that's our ground, no matter what the nuances of the argument are."
White House officials have said there is no comprehensive strategy at play. "What's the end game?" another senior administration official asked.
At a meeting with Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., and Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., at the White House on Monday, Trump re-upped his threat to shutdown the government in September if he doesn't get money for the border wall, according to two people familiar with the meeting. Trump told the senators he was willing to take such a drastic action, these people said, and wanted his wall funding along with strong border security measures.
The issue of family separation was mentioned in passing, with Trump putting blame on Democrats.
Behind the scenes at the White House, aides scrambled Monday to manage the public relations fallout and rally support for their policy. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders' daily briefing, first scheduled for 1:15 p.m., was pushed back to 3:30 p.m., then to 4 p.m., then to 5 p.m., so Nielsen could field questions at the lectern. She was at the White House around 1 p.m. doing extensive prep for the briefing and met with Trump at 3 p.m., according to a White House official.
Earlier Monday morning, administration officials from the Departments of Justice, Health and Human Services and Homeland Security briefed dozens of congressional aides to explain the zero-tolerance policy in the face of mounting questions from Capitol Hill.
The White House distributed more than 3,000 words of talking points to Republican allies under the headline, "Congressional Democrats' Policies Are Responsible for the Border Crisis and Family Separations." The talking points - which included repeated and false claims and claimed that children were being treated well, calling reports of inhumane treatment "bunk" - were largely greeted with amazement, according to senior Republican aides.
Trump's spokesmen doubled down on the president's false contention that Democrats were to blame. The administration points to a 1997 legal agreement and a 2008 bipartisan anti-human-trafficking bill as requiring the separation of families. But the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations did not share that interpretation.
Although Trump tweeted, "Change the laws!," no law mandates that children be taken away from their parents after illegally crossing the border. And Republican and Democratic lawmakers alike contend that Trump could end the separations on his own accord.
Nielsen defended her agency's practice of separating migrant families and accused the media and members of Congress of mischaracterizing the administration's border crackdown.
"We will not apologize for the job we do, or the job law enforcement does, or the job the American people expect us to do," Nielsen said in remarks to law enforcement officers in New Orleans.
Democrats, meanwhile, have escalated their campaign to denounce the family separations. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and a handful of Democratic lawmakers visited a detention facility in San Diego.
In the Senate, all 49 members of the Democratic Caucus have endorsed a bill from Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., that would explicitly bar DHS officials from taking children away from a parent at the border absent evidence of trafficking or abuse.
And Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., an outspoken critic of the administration's immigration enforcement policies, called on Nielsen to resign, saying her false and misleading public statements in recent days are "disqualifying."
Hillary Clinton, the 2016 Democratic presidential nominee, said the American people should have anticipated today's crisis at the border because of Trump's campaign proposals and rhetoric.
"I warned about this during the debates and on the campaign trail, that Trump's immigration policies would entail families being separated," Clinton said in a speech Monday. "Now, as we watch with broken hearts, that's exactly what's happening."