In the early days of the administration, President Donald Trump and the White House began working on a new approach to immigration—one that would eventually lead to the “zero tolerance” policy and the separation of thousands of families along the U.S. southern border.
In the process of concocting new strategies for dealing with the influx of migrants, Trump often tried to push forward plans that were legally dicey, according to former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in an interview with the House Foreign Affairs Committee last month about his year-long tenure in the administration.
“A lot of the early issues had to do with immigration policy, actions, implementation. And... I shared the President’s endpoint objective. He was—oftentimes wanted to do it: Boom, you know, this is it. Let’s issue this,“ Tillerson said.
According to a transcript obtained by The Daily Beast, Tillerson said he often felt uncomfortable by the president’s quick decisions, usually made without reading briefing materials or memos. And that unease, particularly on the issue of immigration, led Tillerson to lean on State Department lawyers about how to manage the president’s demands, according to the transcript.
“The president was on a steep learning curve,” Tillerson recalled. “He didn’t know a lot of the legal aspects of the immigration laws or certainly other aspects of how the government operates within the congressional law-making system and oversight.”
Tillerson said he pushed back against the president often in an attempt to try and explain the process for implementing what could be conceived as controversial immigration policies.
“I’m not a lawyer, so it wasn’t fair of me to be giving him legal advice,” Tillerson said. “But I knew a bit about immigration laws. And so on occasion I would have to say to him: Well, we can’t do it that way. And I think I said... It’s going to get challenged in the court and you’re going to lose. And in some cases he’d say: Well, that’s… crazy.”
The former secretary of state told congressional staffers in his interview that, in general, he tried to educate the president on various topics through the inter-agency briefing process, but largely failed due to the fact that the president refused to read the materials prepared for him.
“Well, I learned to be much more concise with what I wanted to bring in front of him,” Tillerson said. “In the early days I came in with way too much information. I had to adapt to the fact that it wasn’t going to be useful to give him something and say this is… an article worth reading or this is a brief. And, again, that’s not a criticism. That’s just not what he was going to do.”
He added, “I hope eventually somebody gets around to dealing with immigration law, because it’s a mess.”