At the height of the family separation crisis, Trump adviser Stephen Miller was paying special attention to a key administration official critical of the policy. That official, Commander Jonathan White of the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, was the federal health coordinating official overseeing the emergency response to reunite thousands of children taken from their parents at the border by the Trump administration.
“This was the witness HHS sent to the hearing,” Miller wrote about White to then-White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, sharing a press clipping about White's testimony before Congress.
Miller's email to Kelly was part of a raft of emails between Miller and the Department of Justice released recently in response to a Freedom of Information Act request filed by Jason Leopold of BuzzFeed News.
What Commander White said directly contradicted the administration's claim that family separations were not harmful to children. Though, if it was up to the administration, he never would have said it.
Days earlier, in a key meeting, White had been pressured by Trump administration officials to give a different version of his response, at a secret meeting to prepare for his testimony.
If the judicial branch of the federal government wasn’t keeping the Trump administration busy enough as it struggled to undo its family separation policy, the legislative branch had questions about the Trump-made disaster, too. On a summer Saturday, June 28, 2018, a select group of interagency officials gathered to prepare for a hearing called by the Republican-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee.
The committee had called before it five administration officials: Matthew Albence, the executive associate director of enforcement and removal operations for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, who had advocated for family separations since the earliest days of the administration; Commander White, who had done the exact opposite and was now in charge of reunification efforts; Carla Provost, the chief of the Border Patrol, whose agents carried out the separations; James McHenry, the director of the Executive Office for Immigration Review, representing the Department of Justice, which initiated the zero tolerance policy; and Jennifer Higgins, the associate director of the Refugee, Asylum and International Operations Directorate at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency responsible for asylum claims.
They were participating in a “murder board,” what they called a practice session in which they would be peppered with hypothetical questions they would hear from senators. The gathering went about as well as you could expect, given the tension among the officials.
Part of the team questioning the soon-to-be witnesses were Katie Waldman, the Department of Homeland Security spokeswoman, and her boss, Jonathan Hoffman, the assistant secretary for public affairs at DHS. Hoffman’s counterpart from HHS was also there, Judy Stecker, the assistant secretary for public affairs, as was Brian Stimson, the principal deputy general counsel for the department.
The group walked through the lead-up, implementation, and aftermath of the policy. But one question in particular caused the room to explode: Was separation harmful to children?
Commander White, who had long warned of the impacts of separation on children, as had the American Academy of Pediatrics, among others, made it clear he believed it was. If asked, he would stick to the scientific facts.
Waldman suggested a line that was straight out of the Koch brothers’ climate denial playbook: “There’s no reason to think, or way to know, that separations were harmful to children.”
White couldn’t believe it.
“I cannot give that answer under oath because it would be perjury.”
Stimson, the Health and Human Services lawyer, jumped in. Commander White, he told the DHS flacks, was his “star witness” in the Ms. L. case “and you’re pressuring him to give this answer under oath?”
Waldman, Hoffman, Stimson, and Stecker started screaming at one another. After the blowup, Waldman approached Commander White and, as she had done to me on several occasions, used one of her favorite pejoratives.
“I’m sure you’re a bleeding heart liberal.”
That set Commander White off.
“Ms. Waldman, you should save that attitude for journalists. You literally traumatized these kids. Why don’t you go peddle your story to people who don’t work in immigration.”
Hoffman, looking out for his department and personal interests, interjected.
“Where are your loyalties?” he asked White, using a line that could have come from President Trump.
“I swore to protect the Constitution as a commissioned officer of the U.S. Public Health Service. Under oath I’ll answer truthfully,” he shot back.
The following Tuesday, he did.
At the hearing, ICE’s Matthew Albence described his agency’s family detention facilities as “more like a summer camp,” an absurd comparison by any stretch of the imagination.
Senator Richard Blumenthal, the Democrat from Connecticut, asked the five assembled witnesses, sworn under oath, “Did any member of this panel say to anyone, ‘Maybe this isn’t such a good idea’?”
The room sat in silence for four seconds, until Blumenthal looked at Commander White, asking him to speak.
“During the deliberative process over the previous year, we raised a number of concerns in the ORR program about any policy which would result in family separation,” White admitted, “due to concerns we had about the best interest of the child as well as about whether that would be operationally supportable with the bed capacity we had.”
White leaned back in his chair, his hands folded in his lap as Blumenthal responded slowly.
“Now, I’m gonna translate that into what I would call layman’s language. You told the administration that kids would suffer as a result. That pain would be inflicted, correct?”
As he promised Waldman and Hoffman at the murder board, White didn’t mince words, and he told the truth.
“Separation of children from their parents entails significant risk of harm to children.”
“Well, it’s traumatic for any child separated from his or her parents,” Blumenthal said as White nodded. “Am I correct? I say that as a parent of four children.”
“There’s no question. There’s no question that separation of children from parents entails significant potential for traumatic psychological injury to the child.”
Days later, in the early morning hours of August 4, Stephen Miller responded to an email chain about DACA, emailing a Bloomberg article containing that key piece of White's testimony to Kelly, pointing out to the Chief of Staff what Commander White had said:
Separately, this was the witness HHS sent to the hearing—
"A Trump administration official said Tuesday he warned for months about the potential for harm to migrant children if they were separated from their parents before the administration launched its "zero tolerance" border policy earlier this year.
"There is no question that separation of children from parents entails significant potential for traumatic psychological injury to the child," Commander Jonathan White, a Health and Human Services official who led the agency's family reunification efforts, told the Senate Judiciary Committee."
Sent from my iPhone
Earlier that month, federal Judge Dana Sabraw of United States District Court for the Southern District of California, who ordered the Trump administration to reunite separated families, had spoken glowingly of Commander White from the bench.
“The observation I would make is that Commander White is exactly the person that is needed. And I’m very appreciative that you are here, the way you have explained this process. There is no question that you understand the context of this case, the undisputed facts that have led to this difficult situation,” the judge surmised. “The responsibility of the government and HHS to make it right through reunification, in a safe and efficient manner. I have every confidence you are the right person to do this. When I hear your testimony and I look at the plan, it provides a great deal of comfort.”
After Miller's email to Kelly, White remained on the job, coordinating the federal response to reunite the thousands of children and parents taken from each other, a task that continues to this day.
Katie Waldman, the DHS spokeswoman who pressured White in the murder board session, later left DHS to become the Communications Director for Vice President Mike Pence. She married Stephen Miller in February 2020.
Adapted from Separated: Inside an American Tragedy. Copyright © 2020 by Jacob Soboroff. Reprinted by permission of Custom House, an Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.