For the first time in more than three years, Donald Trump took questions from a mainstream journalist before a national audience. It went about how you would expect. The former president spread disinformation about the 2020 election, praised the rioters who stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, and mocked a woman who accused him of rape.
But there was at least one thing he said during the CNN Town Hall on Wednesday evening that was less predictable: he refused to rule out reimplementing family separations at the southern border if elected president again. “When you have that policy, people don’t come,” Trump told moderator Kaitlan Collins. “If a family hears that they’re going to be separated—they love their family—they don’t come. I know it sounds harsh.”
Collins pressed Trump further about whether that meant he would reinstate the policy if he won a second term. “We have to save our country,” he told her. “When you say to a family that if you come we’re going to break you up, they don’t come.”
Trump’s family separations policy barely lasted a matter of months. It was widely castigated as perhaps the most incendiary and cruel action taken by his administration. While a federal investigator found that border agents began taking children from their parents in the summer of 2017, Trump formally adopted the measure in April 2018, saying it would deter illegal immigration. But after international condemnation and vehement domestic backlash, the president signed an executive order in June 2018 ending family separations.
But the human toll of the policy did not end there. More than 5,500 children were ripped away and kept in detention centers, with nearly 1,000 children still yet to have been reunited with their families as of February, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
The former president’s comments came one day before Title 42—the controversial Trump-era pandemic measure that lets border officials swiftly expel migrants without letting them apply for asylum–is set to expire. Government officials anticipate a surge of immigrants and a worsened crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border once the policy ends.
Republicans are expected to pounce on the border crossings and attack President Joe Biden for the situation, hoping an immigration outcry leading up to the 2024 election could boost Trump and other Republicans up and down the ballot.