White House adviser Kellyanne Conway on Sunday defended President Donald Trump's tweets blaming Democrats for the recent deaths of migrant children in U.S. custody and accused Democrats of using the dead children as "political pawns."
"Any deaths of children or others at the Border are strictly the fault of the Democrats and their pathetic immigration policies that allow people to make the long trek thinking they can enter our country illegally," Trump tweeted Saturday after an 8-year-old Guatemalan boy died early Christmas Day. He was the second immigrant child in detention to die this month.
Conway acknowledged that "any death of a child, any death of anyone, is an utter tragedy," during an interview on CNN's "State of the Union." But she initially deflected questions about Trump's tweets and instead focused on the divide over funds for border security that has led to a partial government shutdown, now in its ninth day.
“I think the president’s point is an important one, which is that he has stayed in Washington to negotiate border security,” Conway said when CNN host Dana Bash asked if she defended Trump’s tweets about the children – which did not mention the fact he stayed in Washington.
Conway was instead referring to a tweet he sent hours earlier on Saturday in which he said he was "in the White House waiting for the Democrats to come on over and make a deal on Border Security."
CNN’s Bash told Conway that while she and other White House aides had expressed “empathy” for the children’s deaths, “the president hasn’t.”
"The only thing he has said is something that is very political and, frankly, misleading, with regard to Democrats being culpable for the deaths of children," Bash said.
Conway again referred to Democrats' past willingness to fund fencing along the southern border before explaining that the presidents' tweets were referring to policies that he believes are enticing migrants to bring their children to the border.
Citing U.S. Customs and Border Protection statistics, Conway said that in the past most migrants who tried to cross the U.S. southern border were individual males from Mexico. Now, it is families and unaccompanied minors from Central America, she said. In the last two months, CBP apprehensions in those categories rose 86 percent – more than 68,000 family units and almost 14,000 unaccompanied children – over last year’s total during the same period.
"We simply cannot absorb all that. And unfortunately, and very tragically, it does results in some deaths," Conway said.
"I don't like some of the Democrats using these deaths as political pawns," she continued.
"But isn't that exactly what the president just did?" Bash asked.
"No, the president is not doing that," Conway replied. "The president does not want these children to come on the perilous journey to begin with. They are paying now –some of them are paying the ultimate price."
Bash said the policies for which the president blamed the children's deaths were the result of decades of action, and inaction, under both Democratic and Republican administrations and congressional majorities.
"The courts have screwed this up, and the Congress has failed to close loopholes that make people believe they should come here as a family unit," Conway said. But she did not explain why the president believes only Democrats, who have not controlled both chambers of Congress for 10 years are responsible.
CBP Commissioner Kevin McAleenan said Sunday that the two migrant kids’ deaths in U.S. custody was “absolutely devastating for us on every level.”
"It’s been over a decade since we’ve had a child die anywhere in our processes," he said on ABC's "This Week." He emphasized that "our agents did everything they could as soon as these children manifested symptoms of illness to save their lives"
McAleenan agreed that U.S. policy is partly to blame for the rise in families and children arriving at the border. In particular, he cited a court ruling known as the Flores settlement, which says migrant children can’t be held in custody longer than 20 days and that they can't be separated from their parents.
"So basically that sent a signal, if you arrive with a child, you’ll be able to stay in the United States," he said.
To solve the problem, McAleenan called for “a sober-minded, nonpartisan look at our immigration laws,” increased partnership with Mexico and the “need to invest in Central America.”
"The State Department’s announcement of an unprecedented increase in aid, I think, is a tremendous step forwards. There are green shoots of progress, both on security and the economic front in Central America, we need to foster that and help improve the opportunities to stay at home," he said.
When ABC’s This Week host Martha Raddatz pointed out that Trump has threatened to terminate that aid if more is not done to stop the flow of migrants from Central America, McAleenan said the governments of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador need to be more "accountable" partners.