Grilled on Family Separations, Whitaker Responds, “I Appreciate Your Passion”

The acting attorney general also falsely claimed that there was “no family separation policy.”

Tom Williams/ZUMA

Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker’s testimony before the House Judiciary Committee on Friday is likely to be remembered for his defiant and repeated refusal to discuss any communications he may have had with the president regarding the Russia probe. But tucked within Whitaker’s daylong insistence that he would not “talk about my private conversations with the president of the United States” was a striking moment that appeared to lay bare the inhumanity of the Trump administration’s family separation policy.

The fiery exchange came when Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) questioned Whitaker on whether he had fully grasped the magnitude of the policy. Whitaker at one point directly challenged Jayapal by claiming that there “was no family separation policy.” (Jayapal instantly invoked a Washington Post fact-check from last year that gave that very assertion “four Pinocchios“—meaning it was an outright lie.)

“These parents were in your custody, your attorneys are prosecuting them, and your department was not tracking parents who were separated from their children,” Jayapal continued, her voice rising. “Do you know what kind of damage has been done to children and families across this country, children who will never get to see their parents again? Do you understand the magnitude of that?”

“I understand the policy of zero tolerance,” Whitaker responded, referring to the policy of prosecuting illegal border crossers that led to the separations.

“Has the Justice Department started tracking parents and legal guardians who were separated from their children at the border?” Jayapal asked. The acting attorney general responded without emotion. “Congresswoman, I appreciate your passion for this issue, and I know that you’ve been very involved on the front lines.”

The moment highlighted the deep chasm between an impassioned congresswoman decrying the cruelty of family separations and an administration official who appeared indifferent to the emotionally charged issue.