Matt Shuham

Matt Shuham is a news writer for TPM. He was previously associate editor of The National Memo and managing editor of the Harvard Political Review. He is available by email at and on Twitter @mattshuham.

Articles by Matt

Attorney General Jeff Sessions claimed Thursday that the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” prosecution policy for undocumented people apprehended at the border — a family separation policy, in practice — was “never really intended” to separate families, despite multiple warnings he’d issued to migrant families that they would be separated if arrested at the border.

In an interview with Sessions, CBN News’ David Brody said that the “media narrative” surrounding the Trump administration’s family separation policy was that “optics have not been good for the administration.”

“Well, it hasn’t been good,” Sessions agreed, “and the American people don’t like the idea that we’re separating families.”

“We never really intended to do that,” he continued. “What we intended to do was to make sure that adults who bring children into the country are charged with the crime they’ve committed, instead of giving that special group of adults immunity of prosecution, which is what, in effect, we were doing.”

Sessions announced in April that he was ordering U.S. attorneys to pursue a “zero tolerance” prosecution policy along the border, meaning that criminal illegal entry charges would systematically be brought against parents apprehended with children, even though that was not the case in past administrations.

Because children cannot be held in criminal detention, the policy necessarily led to the separation of thousands of children from the adults with whom they were apprehended.

Sessions was explicit about this point.

“We don’t want to separate families, but we don’t want families to come to the border illegally and attempt to enter into this country improperly,” he said in May. “The parents are subject to prosecution while children may not be. So, if we do our duty and prosecute those cases, then children inevitably for a period of time might be in different conditions.”

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This is about more than the thousands of families who have already been separated at the border as a result of Trump administration policy, horrific as it is: It’s about the gears of state turning in unison to grind a vulnerable population deep into the Texas dust.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions decided earlier this month that victims of domestic and gang violence generally do not qualify for asylum protections. The government has also illegally refused asylum-seekers at designated ports of entry. For months, asylum-seekers have been wrongfully subject to criminal prosecution even before they have a “credible fear” asylum interview.

Those in criminal proceedings are guaranteed a (now severely overworked) public defender, but those in civil immigration courts are not. In April, days after Sessions announced his “zero-tolerance” policy, the Justice Department paused a program that offered legal advice to immigrants. Trump also eliminated an extremely successful detention alternative program for undocumented people.

Sponsors who wish to claim migrant children out of government-run and -contracted foster care will now, according to a recent change, be required to submit fingerprints for a DHS-run background check — that includes undocumented family members potentially subject to arrest and deportation by the same agency.

Rachel Maddow reports Army JAGs have been requested at the border to prosecute misdemeanor illegal entry, and that she couldn’t find a precedent for JAGs in civilian criminal court.

The administration’s lack of planning before this monumental “zero-tolerance” policy change — the “deconstruction of the administrative state,” as Steve Bannon might say — may have even more horrific consequences yet: “Reunification is at best a remote possibility,” the Texas Tribune reported, especially for families “with children too small to remember their parents’ full names.”

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the administration, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross shorted a Kremlin-linked shipping company after being contacted by a reporter working on a negative story about his investment in it. Scott Pruitt’s EPA has spent more than $4.6 million on security, including for “tactical pants.” And the Office of Government Ethics is waiting to hear from the EPA inspector general in order to determine if OGE should make formal contact with the White House regarding Pruitt’s behavior.

The EPA summit from which reporters and congressional staffers were improperly barred last month focused on public policy surrounding “PFAS,” a category of common yet dangerous contaminants. A long-delayed CDC study on PFAS is out now, and it’s as bad as expected.

The EPA’s Criminal Investigations Division had 157 special agents in late 2016. Now it’s down to 140.

Scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey face new rules: Submit presentation titles and other information to the Interior Department for review, and tell the department’s communications office before you talk to reporters. Secretary Ryan Zinke is linked to a downright stinky development deal with Halliburton Chairman David Lesar.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos faces a lawsuit for systematically dismissing civil-rights complaints. We now know how many: At least 1,200.

Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach unsuccessfully sought a pardon — while he vice chaired the Trump administration’s bogus and now-defunct “voter fraud” panel — for a political donor who once, allegedly, put a gun to a cab driver’s head.

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First lady Melania Trump on Thursday visited unaccompanied migrant children in a shelter in McAllen, Texas, a sign of goodwill and compassion even as her husband refuses to address the thousands of families already separated as a result of his “zero tolerance” prosecution policy.

Yet, the jacket Melania Trump wore on her way to McAllen quickly caused a stir. 

Bitch Media identified the coat the first lady was wearing as she climbed the stairs to her plane: “I Really Don’t Care, Do U?” it reads.

Reached for comment Thursday, Stephanie Grisham, a spokeswoman for the first lady, told TPM: “It’s a jacket. There was no hidden message. After today’s important visit to Texas, I hope the media isn’t going to choose to focus on her wardrobe.”

“(Much like her high heels last year)” Grisham added.

Asked if the message on the coat was insensitive, Grisham replied, “Thank you for your opinion.”

The President weighed in later on Thursday:

So did Grisham, again:

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Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-ND) really must insist: Don’t call the structures the U.S. government uses to house children after they’ve been apprehended at the border “cages.” 

On Thursday, Cramer continued to protest that, no, the United States does not hold migrant children in cages.

He prefers the phrase “buildings that have, in some cases, walls that are made of chain link, so that it’s easier to observe and to protect them.” 

Cramer is running for Senate against incumbent Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND). Perhaps this will be part of his platform: Chainlink rooms aren’t cages! 

He already made the same point twice on radio shows Wednesday. 

“You know, there’s nothing inhumane about a chain link fence,” he told KTGO. “If it is, then every ballpark in America is inhumane.”

The Customs and Border Patrol cages are used to temporarily house children who are apprehended at the border.

Within days, the children are supposed to be transferred to the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services. The Office of Refugee Resettlement, a subagency of HHS, then places the children in shelters or foster homes. 

Watch below:


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The Department of Justice disputed a Thursday Washington Post story that the Trump administration has suspended its “zero tolerance” prosecution policy for parents apprehended at the border with children.

“The Washington Post never reached out to the Department,” DOJ spokesperson Sarah Isgur Flores said. “Their story is not accurate. There has been no change to the Department’s zero tolerance policy to prosecute adults who cross our border illegally”

The Post reported, citing one unnamed senior U.S. Customs and Border Protection official, that Border Patrol agents had been “to stop sending parents with children to federal courthouses for prosecution,” in the paper’s words.

“We’re suspending prosecutions of adults who are members of family units until ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) can accelerate resource capability to allow us to maintain custody,” the official said.

There’s some wiggle room between the DOJ statement and the anonymous official’s claim: Government prosecutors could still be following a “zero tolerance” policy for individual cases referred to them, but it could be the case that border agents, whose agencies fall under the Department of Homeland Security, have been ordered not to refer certain cases to prosecutors.

Trump’s executive order Wednesday asserted that parents would continue facing criminal charges, but also that their kids would be kept with them during their criminal, and then civil, proceedings.

But the unnamed CBP official appeared to tell the Post that wasn’t viable.

The paper reported: “The decision to cease prosecutions of parents with children was made by the Department of Homeland Security for logistical purposes because the official said it would not be ‘feasible’ to bring children to federal courtrooms while their parents go before a judge.”

Spokespeople for the DOJ did not immediately respond to TPM’s requests for comment.

CBP told TPM in a statement, without immediately responding to follow-up questions:

U.S. Customs and Border Protection has taken immediate steps to implement the President’s Executive Order Affording Congress the Opportunity to Address Family Separation.  Family unity will be maintained for families apprehended crossing the border illegally, and they will be transferred together to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.  The Border Patrol will continue to refer for prosecution adults who cross the border illegally. For those children still in Border Patrol custody, we are reuniting them with parents or legal guardians returned to Border Patrol custody following prosecution.  As specified in the order, families will not be detained together when doing so would pose a risk to the child’s welfare.  Additionally, as was the case prior to implementation of the zero tolerance policy on May 5, family units may be separated due to humanitarian, health and safety, or criminal history in addition to illegally crossing the border.

This post has been updated. 

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Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) is well-known for his disapproving tweets about President Donald Trump, but his recent moves may be may amount to more than empty condemnations.

For the second week in a row, Flake has held up one of President Donald Trump’s appellate court nominees, but it’s unclear why, or how long he plans to continue the protest.

Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) said in a statement Thursday:

“Britt Grant, nominated to the 11th Circuit [Court of Appeals], is on today’s agenda again. Unfortunately, we won’t be able to vote on her nomination today and will hold her over for another week while Senator Flake works out his concerns with the administration and leader’s office on issues not related to her nomination.”

Spokespeople for Flake, Grassley and the White House did not immediately return TPM’s requests for comment.

Amanda Maddox, communications director for Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA), told TPM Thursday the Flake hadn’t explained himself to Isakson.

“Senator Isakson has spoken directly to Senator Flake,” she said. “We still do not know Flake’s reasoning.”

Tom Mentzer, a spokesperson for committee Ranking Member Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), also told TPM he didn’t know what was behind Flake’s hold. “You’ll have to ask Flake,” he said.

RollCall reported Tuesday on Flake blocking Grant’s nomination last week, and CNN reported Wednesday that Flake was threatening to block more nominees if he didn’t get his way on two specific issues.

“Oh, it’s just something I’m working out,” Flake told RollCall Tuesday.

One unnamed source told CNN Flake wanted “to spur discussions on travel restrictions to Cuba as well as issues related to tariffs,” in the publication’s words.

“We’re discussing it,” Flake told CNN.

Isakson on Tuesday expressed anger about the move to RollCall: “[Flake] has no reason for her not to go forward,” he said, after telling the publication he “confronted” Flake about the hold. “It’s an indiscriminate, irresponsible use of a privilege of the Senate.”

A week ago, on June 14, Grassley told RollCall that his staff had told him not to hold a vote on Grant.

“I don’t have a reason,” he told the outlet. “They just said that we didn’t have the votes and so we shouldn’t bring it up. That’s the only reason I know, and there may be another reason.”

“If it is a controversial one, we probably would have to have all 11 Republicans. So if one Republican wouldn’t vote, and it’s 10 to 10, then we’re not going to take it up,” Grassley told CNN.

Correction: This post initially identified Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA) as a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. He is not. TPM regrets the error. 

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President Donald Trump on Wednesday signed an executive order that he said would prioritize keeping migrant families together while maintaining Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ “zero tolerance” prosecution initiative for families, including those seeking asylum, who are apprehended at the border.

It’s unclear how exactly the executive order will affect family separations in practice, especially considering a Justice Department official’s admission that the Flores settlement, which limits the time children and families can be detained, still governs migrant detention policy.

One thing is for sure, though: The government has not put forward any concrete plan for reuniting the thousands of families it has already separated under the “zero tolerance” policy. And Trump did not address the issue in his executive order.

A spokesperson for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which takes custody of adults after they complete their criminal proceedings, gave a vague statement to the Daily Beast on the issue Tuesday.

“When parents are removed without their children, ICE, [the Office of Refugee Resettlement, the sub-agency within the Department of Health and Human Services that takes custody of children separated from their families], and the consulates work together to coordinate the return of a child and transfer of custody to the parent or foreign government upon arrival in country, in accordance with repatriation agreements between the U.S. and other countries,” the spokesperson said.

The Daily Beast said the Department of Homeland Security had “conceded that parents have been deported without their children,” in the publication’s words.

That may be putting it lightly.

Last week, Mimi Marziani, president of the Texas Civil Rights Project, told TPM that it wasn’t clear to her, nor to parents the organization had spoken to who’d been separated from their children, “what this procedure is” for reunification.

“It’s not just that they’re getting separated,” she said. “It’s that no one is telling these parents where their kids are, what sort of care they’re getting, when they’re going to see them again.”

A week later, not much appears to have changed: An ICE spokesperson told BuzzFeed Monday that “reunification typically does not occur until the removal stage of the process,” but by then, parents and children are often in different states, having already been separated into the custody of distinct federal agencies.

BuzzFeed said the spokesperson, Danielle Bennett, could not provide the number of families, nor even give examples of families, reunified since the “zero tolerance” policy took effect.

“We don’t have any metrics to provide at this point and we wouldn’t proactively give examples of this,” Bennett said.

“We’ll get a promise of coordination and then it doesn’t happen,” an unnamed attorney who’s represented children in ORR custody told the Intercept Tuesday. “There’s just not any commitment to the coordination of removal or reunification before removal. There doesn’t seem to be any plan.” 

“I don’t see any evidence of any plan to reunify the parent and the child after the conclusion of the adult’s criminal case,” Chris Carlin, a public defender in Alpine, Texas, told the Daily Beast.

Add to all of this the recent development that ORR will be conducting joint fingerprint-based background checks with DHS for potential sponsors seeking to take children out of ORR care, and the process becomes more complicated still.

On a May 29 call with reporters in which he discussed the change, Steven Wagner, an HHS official whose department oversees ORR, dismissed concerns that undocumented potential sponsors may be unwilling to submit data to DHS.

“If somebody is unwilling to claim their child from custody because they’re concerned about their own immigration status, I think that, de facto, calls into question whether they’re an adequate sponsor and whether we should be releasing a child to that person,” Wagner said.

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Rep. Mark Sanford (R-SC), who lost his congressional primary after President Donald Trump endorsed his more Trump-aligned challenger, said Wednesday that the President “was booed” by Republican lawmakers Tuesday.

That, along with other reports, contradicts a tweet from Trump Wednesday afternoon that Republicans “applauded and laughed loudly when I mentioned my experience with Mark Sanford.”

Trump, according to multiple reports and at least one other member of Congress in the room, sarcastically asked Republicans during a closed-door meeting Wednesday if Sanford was in attendance, because he wanted to congratulate him on his (unsuccessful) race.

Politico’s Jake Sherman and several others reported that Trump was “booed, a bit” after Trump then called Sanford a “nasty guy.” Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI) said Wednesday that “Nobody applauded or laughed” after the snark, and that “People were disgusted.”

Sanford appeared to confirm that Wednesday.

“I do think it’s humbling, one, that in this case the President was booed by colleagues in the House who basically said we don’t go along with what the President is suggesting, and two, I think that there is a bigger message for all of us to take away from what occurred that goes well beyond the President’s comments, well beyond the election in the first district, and that is the importance and the value of dissent in our political system,” the outgoing congressman, who was not in attendance Tuesday, said.

Because he’d spoken up at times against the President, Sanford said, “I was singled out.”

“I think part of what the President did yesterday was to send a very chilling message to my colleagues on, ‘Hey, if you speak up against me, there will be consequences,'” he said. “And I think that’s the last thing we need in our political system.”

Watch below:

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ABC News apologized Wednesday for an incorrect chyron that said former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort had pleaded guilty to five charges of manslaughter.

“We regret and apologize for the false lower third graphic that aired during our special report,” the network said on its Twitter page. “We are investigating how incorrect information was in our system and how and why it was allowed to air.”

“We apologize to our viewers and to Mr. Manafort. There simply is no excuse for this sort of mistake,” ABC added.

The incorrect chyron appeared as video showed Trump meeting with members of Congress to discuss immigration policy, around 12:3o p.m. ET.

Manafort is certainly facing the legal fight of his life: he was sent to jail Friday over accusations of witness tampering as he awaits trial on several charges, none of them manslaughter.

Trump responded later on Wednesday, boosting the story to his tens of millions of Twitter followers:

This post has been updated.

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President Donald Trump framed immigration policy Wednesday between two poles: The country could be “overrun with millions of people,” or he could be accused of not having “any heart.”

For a President who has reportedly used racist language in reference to certain African nations and Haiti, and who has described undocumented immigrants as “animals” who “infest” the country, the rhetoric added to a list of sentiments from the President that undocumented immigrants are a problem to be dealt with, a drain on the vitality of a nation.

“The dilemma” with the immigration debate, Trump told lawmakers during a televised meeting Wednesday, “is that if you’re weak, if you’re weak — which some people would like you to be — if you’re really, really pathetically weak, the country is going to be overrun with millions of people.”

“And if you’re strong, then you don’t have any heart,” he said. “That’s a tough dilemma.”

“Perhaps I would rather with strong, but that’s a tough dilemma.”

Trump also announced in the meeting that he would be signing an executive order to “keep families together,” without explaining further. His administration’s policy of family separation for migrants apprehended at the border has resulted so far in thousands of separated families since April, averaging dozens a day recently.

He’s otherwise kicked the can to Congress, where Republican lawmakers have by and large refused to pressure him publicly to simply undo the policy, which the President has the power to do. The family separations have added political weight to sprawling Republican immigration proposals that would affect far more than the narrow issue of family separation.

Trump didn’t elaborate on the family separation executive order he said he planned to sign. But he asserted he had to “maintain toughness, or our country will be overrun: by people, by crime, by all of the things that we don’t stand for, that we don’t want.”

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