U.S. President Donald Trump pushed the commissioner of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to shut the southwest border to migrants, promising to pardon him if he went to jail for having done so, reports said Friday.
The president pushed back against the news, calling it a “fake story,” but one of the reporters said the White House was approached for comment three times in a single day.
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Trump approached CBP commissioner — and now acting Homeland Security Secretary — Kevin McAleenan about shutting down the border last week, one day after he publicly backtracked on his pledge to close it, The New York Times reported, citing three unnamed people who were briefed about the conversation.
The exchange happened during Trump’s visit to Calexico, Calif., where he met with border officials and looked over a rebuilt border fence.
It wasn’t clear what exactly the president meant when he spoke with McAleenan, and it’s possible he was joking, one source told the Times.
But it has nevertheless unnerved Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials who were concerned about its legal implications, much as they were about his plan to release undocumented migrants in sanctuary cities.
CNN also reported on Trump’s conversation with McAleenan — it said the president told him that he would “pardon him if he ever went to jail for denying U.S. entry to migrants,” said one of two anonymous senior administration officials who spoke with the network.
Trump also told border agents not to admit any migrants and say that capacity wasn’t available for them, CNN added.
Were they to appear in court, the president reportedly told them to say, “sorry, judge, I can’t do it. We don’t have the room.”
Border agents subsequently consulted their superiors, who told them they were not being instructed to shut the border to migrants and that it was on them if they followed the president’s alleged instruction.
Both the Times and CNN approached the White House for comment and were directed to DHS.
A DHS spokesman offered the following statement:
“At no time has the president indicated, asked, directed or pressured the acting secretary to do anything illegal. Nor would the acting secretary take actions that are not in accordance with our responsibility to enforce the law.”
NBC News subsequently wrote about the Times’ report, but did not confirm it independently.
Trump nevertheless targeted NBC’s reporting on Twitter, calling it a “fake story.”
However, Times reporter Maggie Haberman responded to Trump on Twitter, saying that the newspaper reached out to the White House three times, starting just after 11 a.m.
“In case the White House approach is not clear here, it’s to not comment and then have Trump say ‘fake news,'” she tweeted.
The story emerged five days after former homeland security secretary Kirstjen Nielsen resigned.
She had refused to comply with Trump’s intent to shut down the border, and told the president such an action would be illegal, the Times reported.
However, Trump subsequently told McAleenan to go ahead with it.
Nielsen resigned two days later, and McAleenan was appointed to the job, according to the Times.