Fox News host Laura Ingraham on Monday lobbed a question at Attorney General Jeff Sessions that should have produced a slam-dunk answer.
Ingraham played footage of former CIA director Michael Hayden and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) comparing the Trump administration's policy of separating migrant families with the practices of Nazi Germany — rhetoric that could easily be called over the top, given the present situation at the nation's southern border, however objectionable most Americans might find it, does not match the atrocity of history's most infamous genocide.
Yet Sessions offered a different argument when Ingraham asked, “What's going on here?”
“Well, it's a real exaggeration, because in Nazi Germany, they were keeping the Jews from leaving the country,” Sessions replied.
So the difference, according to Sessions, is Nazis were trying to keep Jews in the country, whereas the Trump administration is trying to keep immigrants out of the country. Of all the ways he could have drawn a contrast, Sessions picked that one. He did not mention the gas chambers or the starvation; he said what puts Nazis in another, worse category is that “they were keeping the Jews from leaving.”
Ingraham's nonverbal reaction suggested even she thought that maybe, just maybe, Sessions had not presented the strongest argument.
Sessions's flimsy response does not mean the Nazi comparisons are fair, but it exemplifies the Trump administration's struggle to compose a message that projects compassion, alongside toughness. When you cannot thoroughly and forcefully rebut critics' suggestions that a policy is Nazi-like, you have a communications problem.
Reminder: The White House has not had a communications director since Hope Hicks left in March.
Hours before Sessions appeared on Fox News, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen addressed “a selected few in the media, Congress and the advocacy community” and was explicitly unapologetic about how the Trump administration is interpreting and enforcing immigration laws.
“This department will no longer stand by and watch you attack law enforcement for enforcing the laws passed by Congress,” Nielsen said at a meeting of the National Sheriffs’ Association in New Orleans. “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.”
There is no law requiring migrant families apprehended at the border be split up. Until the Trump administration adopted what it called a “zero-tolerance policy” this year, many adults accused of trying enter the United States illegally were released on bond and ordered to appear in court at later dates, allowing them to remain with their children.
Nielsen also fielded questions from reporters at the White House and did not acknowledge the toll such separations can take on children.
“We have high standards,” she said, when asked whether removing children from parental care is a form of abuse. “We give them meals. We give them education. We give them medical care. There's videos; there's TVs.”
Nielsen did say another group of people deserves sympathy.
“I just want to ask that, in your reporting, please consider the men and women of DHS who are dedicated law enforcement officers and who often put their lives at risk,” she said. “Let's remember their sacrifice and commitment to this country.”
Some other administration officials have attempted to strike a softer tone. White House director of legislative affairs Marc Short, for example, said Monday on CNN separating children from parents is “heart-wrenching.”
With Sessions and Nielsen out front, however, the administration's defense of a polarizing policy decision has, for the most part, been clinical.