The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump, questioned on child separation policy, insists, ‘I brought the families together’

President Trump listens during a meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at the White House on June 20. (Evan Vucci/AP)

In what was billed as his first television interview with a Spanish-language network, President Trump was pressed on his administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy and insisted that it was “not a mistake,” doubling down on his previously discredited claims that former president Barack Obama was to blame for families being separated at the border.

“I brought the families together,” Trump said in a wide-ranging and at times contentious interview with Telemundo that aired late Thursday night. “I’m the one that put them together.”

The president’s comments come just days after he tweeted that U.S. immigration agents will soon “begin the process of removing the millions of illegal aliens who have illicitly found their way into the United States.” Trump added, “They will be removed as fast as they come in.”

Trump vows mass immigration arrests, removals of ‘millions of illegal aliens’ starting next week

The plan Trump was apparently referring to earlier in the week would target thousands of migrant parents and children nationwide, and Homeland Security officials have expressed concerns that families could inadvertently become separated as a result, The Washington Post’s Nick Miroff and Maria Sacchetti reported.

Addressing a predominantly Hispanic audience on Thursday, Trump pushed back against “Noticiero Telemundo” anchor José Díaz-Balart’s assertion that he has been “very tough on immigrants.” The roughly 20-minute interview was posted to YouTube in English and was dubbed in Spanish on the television network.

“When you say that, you mean illegal immigrants,” Trump said. “I’ve been very good to immigrants.”

Díaz-Balart questioned Trump about his administration’s deeply unpopular family separation policy, which sparked a humanitarian and political crisis at the border last spring after thousands of parents were split up from their children. Facing broad backlash, Trump abruptly halted the separations in June 2018. The government identified more than 2,700 children that were separated from their families last year, but the actual number, estimated to be thousands more, is still unknown.

“So, the ‘zero tolerance’ policy, was it a mistake?” Díaz-Balart asked, moments after Trump boasted that his support among Latino voters is rising because “Hispanics want toughness at the border.”

“It’s not a mistake,” he replied. “We want to have strong borders.”

Ignoring Díaz-Balart’s attempts to bring up the thousands of children affected by the policy, Trump reverted to a common response when faced with questions about the separations: Falsely pinning the blame on Obama.

“When I became president, President Obama had a separation policy, I didn’t have it,” Trump said. “President Obama is the one that built those prison cells.”

Trump’s assertions about Obama’s immigration policies have been debunked several times by The Post’s Fact Checker. Current and former DHS officials said family separation was rare during the Obama years, and usually only happened if a child’s safety was at risk, The Post reported in April.

Trump digs in on false claim that he stopped Obama’s family separation policy

As Díaz-Balart continued to press Trump on the “zero tolerance” policy, the president defended himself by reiterating that he was the one responsible for reuniting families. (The reunification process began last year after U.S. District Judge Dana M. Sabraw issued a court order demanding children be returned to their families.)

“I inherited separation and I changed the plan and I brought people together,” Trump said, arguing that family separations were a deterrent to migrants trying to cross the border.

“But I hated to have the separation policy,” he said, prompting Díaz-Balart to ask the president again if “zero tolerance” was a mistake.

“What ‘zero tolerance’ means to me is we’re going to be tough on the border,” Trump said.

“That includes separating parents from children if that’s what it takes?” Díaz-Balart replied.

“No, no, no. I put them together,” Trump answered. “Just remember that, I put them together.”

The president also faced questions about revoking the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which protected undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children, and his recently signed deal with Mexico. The country agreed to take “strong measures” to crack down on the surge of Central American migrants at the southern border to avoid harsh tariffs.

“This week, I consider them a friend,” Trump said of Mexico. “They’ve been doing a great job actually.”

He later added: “If they weren’t great, I would put tariffs on them.”

Trump announces migration deal with Mexico, averting threatened tariffs

Díaz-Balart and Trump also discussed how he anticipated faring with Latino voters in the upcoming election and his fellow 2020 candidates.

Trump told Díaz-Balart that he believes he’ll do “much better” with the Latino vote in 2020, specifically drawing attention to his stance on Cuba and Venezuela. The Trump administration has accused Cuba of being involved with keeping Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro in power, and is continuing to impose strict regulations on the Caribbean country.

“I’ve been very, very tough on Cuba,” Trump said. “We’re going to get Cuba worked out properly. Not the way Obama did it, which was a disaster.”

Trump administration ends group travel to Cuba by Americans

Pushed on why Maduro remains in power, Trump said, “Some people say we’ve been too tough, I say we haven’t been tough enough.” The Post’s Karen DeYoung and Josh Dawsey reported Wednesday that Trump “is losing both patience and interest in Venezuela.”

“Well, it’s a process,” Trump said during Thursday’s interview, before expressing sympathy for Venezuelans who are starving and “have no nothing.”

“I love the Venezuelan people,” he said.

With Maduro entrenched in Venezuela, Trump loses patience and interest in issue, officials say

Though Trump said he wouldn’t “bother too much” with commenting on his political opponents, he still hurled a few zingers. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) “looks like a tired crazy right now,” he said. Trump also described former vice president Joe Biden as “exhausted.”

When Díaz-Balart brought up a recent Quinnipiac University poll, which had Biden, Sanders, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, among other candidates, leading Trump in Florida, the president dismissed the results.

“I don’t respect that poll,” he said.

Asked whether he had any regrets, Trump shook his head and said, “I’ve done a great job.”

And his two biggest mistakes as president?

“I would have not appointed a couple of people, and my life would have been a much simpler life,” he said, without specifying which people he was referring to. “My biggest mistakes was I put a couple of people in that I shouldn’t have put in.”