Anger and condemnation ensued overnight and into Friday after the release of secretly-taped audio recordings revealed First Lady Melania Trump dismissing public outrage over the family separation crisis initiated by her husband's administration at the U.S.-Mexico border in 2018.
"'Oh, what about the children, that they were separated?' Give me a fucking break."
—First Lady Melania Trump
Stephanie Winston Wolkoff, a former friend of the first lady hired as her senior advisor when President Donald Trump took office in 2017, released the audio a month after publishing a memoir of her White House career, "Melania and Me."
In the recording from July 2018, Trump is heard first complaining about the expectation that she oversee the Christmas decorations at the White House and then speaking disparagingly of critics who said she did not do enough to speak out against the separation of thousands of families at the border—a policy which resulted in thousands of children being locked up in detention centers away from their parents or guardians.
In the tapes, Mrs. Trump talks about:
- Family separations
- "Liberal media"
- The "I really don't care" jacket pic.twitter.com/N2Y8QtqD8n
— Yashar Ali (@yashar) October 2, 2020
"I do it and I say that I'm working on Christmas and planning for the Christmas and they said, 'Oh, what about the children, that they were separated?' Give me a fucking break," Trump is heard saying in the recording. "Where they were saying anything when Obama did that?"
The first lady suggested the Obama administration separated families in the same manner as President Donald Trump and his top immigration officials, repeating a claim by the administration.
In fact, the Obama administration did not impose a blanket family separation policy at the U.S.-Mexico border; officials declined to use family separation as a deterrent to undocumented immigrants and instead separated children from the adults they arrived in the U.S. with only when there were doubts about the familial relationship or concerns about the children's safety.
The first lady expressed her frustrations a month after President Trump was forced, following intense international outcry, to sign an executive order officially ending his family separation policy. By that time, under the administration's "zero tolerance" policy announced in April 2018, more than 2,200 families had been forcibly separated.
By the end of July, when Trump was recorded by Wolkoff, hundreds of parents had yet to be reunited with their children.
In another recording, Trump claimed the children were "taken care of nicely" at detention centers operated by ICE—contrary to numerous credible reports of severe neglect, abuse, and unsafe conditions in the facilities, which in some cases resulted in the deaths of children.
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"You know, yeah, they are not with parents, it's sad. But when they come here alone or with coyotes or illegally, you know, you need to do something," adding a claim that parents and children frequently lie about the dangers they face in their home countries in order to be granted asylum.
"They say like, 'Oh we will be killed by gang member...It's so dangerous," Trump told Wolkoff. "And they are not, you know, it's not true...Some of them are using that lines."
According to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), "In recent years, El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala (known as the Northern Triangle) have experienced a dramatic escalation in organized crime by gangs, called maras," leading thousands of families to flee their home countries and seek asylum elsewhere.
"Current homicide rates are among the highest ever recorded in Central America. Several cities, including San Salvador, Tegucigalpa, and San Pedro Sula, are among the 10 most dangerous in the world," the UNHCR reports. "The most visible evidence of violence is the high rate of brutal homicides, but other human rights abuses are on the rise, including the recruitment of children into gangs, extortion, and sexual violence."
At the height of the family separation crisis, Trump was photographed during her visit to the southern border wearing a jacket with the phrase, "I really don't care, do U?" across the back—provoking disbelief and outrage among immigrant rights advocates.
The July 2018 recording simply confirmed the first lady's attitude about the plight of thousands of families at the time, critics on social media wrote.
Shocked Melania was caught on tape saying she doesn't care about immigrant children in cages, a thing we already knew because she literally wore a jacket saying it
— Mike Drucker (@MikeDrucker) October 2, 2020
— Gene Jones (@GeneAJonesJr) October 2, 2020
Asked about children in cages, the first lady said "give me a f***ing break."
You know who didn't get a f***ing break? The children. https://t.co/0Ebh44XbNw
— Merav Ben-David (@MBenDavid2020) October 2, 2020
"The woman who violated U.S. immigration law to work in the United States on a tourist visa, believes all those moms and children fleeing violence in Central America are making up their asylum claims," tweeted journalist Julia Ioffe.