WASHINGTON — The Trump White House blocked the Justice Department from making a deal in October 2019 to pay for mental health services for migrant families who had been separated by the Trump administration, two current and two former senior administration officials told NBC News.
Three sources involved in the discussions who requested anonymity said the Office of White House Counsel made the decision to reject the settlement of a federal lawsuit after consultation with senior adviser Stephen Miller, the driving force behind many of President Donald Trump’s immigration policies, including family separations.
“DOJ strongly, and unanimously, supported the settlement, but not all agencies involved were on the same page,” an administration official said. “Ultimately, the settlement was declined at the direction of the White House counsel’s office.”
Another administration official said: “Ultimately, it was Stephen who prevailed. He squashed it.”
The White House’s refusal to accept the deal ended up costing taxpayers $6 million.
A White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity, did not say why the White House counsel’s office rejected the settlement and denied that Miller was involved: “Mr. Miller was not involved, and any suggestion that he was is false.”
After nine months of negotiations, primarily in Los Angeles, an $8 million settlement for screening and counseling thousands of migrants had been “agreed to in principle” by both lawyers for the Justice Department and lawyers representing the migrant families, said Mark Rosenbaum, a lawyer with the pro bono public interest law firm Public Counsel representing the families.
Rosenbaum said the pressure to come to an agreement, and quickly, was mounting.
“Many of these children thought their parents had deliberately abandoned them. The longer that trauma goes unredressed, the more severe the consequences,” Rosenbaum said. “We had a deal, a good deal. Everybody was feeling good about where we were. Then they came back and said no.”
The lawyers representing the government recommended approval to their superiors in Washington. At the Justice Department, Principal Deputy Associate Attorney General Claire Murray took the figure to the Office of White House Counsel. It was there that the settlement was rejected, according to the two current and two former administration officials.
Rosenbaum said he had assumed that the government would want to settle to keep from going to discovery, the process of collecting evidence in a civil court proceeding, which would have involved interviews with children traumatized by the Trump administration’s zero tolerance policy.