WASHINGTON — President Trump and top aides in the White House aggressively pushed the get-tough policy that led migrant families to be separated at the border with Mexico, according to a top Justice Department official in a new report from the department’s inspector general, and other internal documents.
In the report, formally released on Thursday, Gene Hamilton, a top Justice official, said the policy was implemented after complaints by the president and others at the White House involved in carrying out the president’s immigration agenda.
“The attorney general was aware of White House desires for further action related to combating illegal immigration,” Mr. Hamilton is quoted as saying in the report in response to questions about the origins of the program, in which the department began prosecuting migrant adults who arrived at the border with children.
Mr. Hamilton said that former Attorney General Jeff Sessions “perceived a need to take quick action” from Mr. Trump and that after a meeting at the White House on April 3, 2018, Mr. Sessions “directed that I draft a memo that would put in effect a zero tolerance approach to immigration enforcement at the border.”
In a statement issued on Thursday after the inspector general’s report, Rod J. Rosenstein, the former deputy attorney general involved in the policy, expressed deep regret about the zero tolerance policy and the part he played in its implementation.
“Since leaving the department, I have often asked myself what we should have done differently, and no issue has dominated my thinking more than the zero tolerance immigration policy,” he said. “It was a failed policy that never should have been proposed or implemented. I wish we all had done better.”
Notes obtained by The New York Times of two meetings — one between federal prosecutors along the southwestern border and Mr. Sessions, and another with Mr. Rosenstein — also indicate that law enforcement officials were pushing the separation policy in response to pressure from the president.
During a May 11, 2018, meeting with Mr. Sessions, the attorney general told the prosecutors, “we need to take away children,” according to the notes. Moments later, he described Mr. Trump as “very intense, very focused” on the issue, according to one person taking notes at the meeting.
Another person who attended the same meeting wrote about the same part of the conversation involving Mr. Trump: “INTENSE: prosecute everyone.”
Mr. Trump has repeatedly attempted to avoid responsibility for his administration’s family separation policy by falsely blaming Democrats and former President Barack Obama. But the inspector general report and other documents directly implicate the Trump White House.
On May 14, just days after Mr. Sessions met with his prosecutors, Stephen Miller, the chief White House architect of Mr. Trump’s immigration policy, forwarded an email to Mr. Hamilton noting a newspaper article indicating that U.S. attorneys were at times refusing to prosecute migrants who were crossing the border illegally, in part because the migrants were crossing with young children. Mr. Hamilton responded, “This article is a big problem.”
Eight days later, on May 22, Mr. Rosenstein again met with U.S. attorneys who handle border issues to insist that they prosecute every case of illegal crossings that were referred to them from the Border Patrol. He dismissed concerns from at least one prosecutor that children under 5 would be separated from parents if the adults are prosecuted.
“IF THEY ARE REFERRING, THEN PROSECUTE. AGE OF CHILD DOESN’T MATTER,” Mr. Rosenstein said, according to the notes of one person at the meeting, who wrote in all capital letters.
Senator Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois and the incoming chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said in a statement: “Those who planned and executed the zero-tolerance policy will have to live with the knowledge that their cruelty and cowardice are responsible for the scars these children will carry for the rest of their lives. They must be held accountable for the fundamental human rights violations that they perpetrated.”