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Ex-Attorney General Sessions needs to answer questions on zero tolerance, says DOJ inspector general

Former Trump Attorney General Jeff Sessions wouldn't help with a report on migrant family separations, said the Justice Department's inspector general.
Image: President Donald Trump, left, sits with Attorney General Jeff Session
President Donald Trump sits with Attorney General Jeff Sessions during the FBI National Academy graduation ceremony in Quantico, Va., on Dec. 15, 2017.Evan Vucci / AP file

WASHINGTON — The Justice Department's Inspector General pleaded with Congress on Thursday for the authority to compel testimony from ex-department employees after former Attorney General Jeff Sessions refused to be interviewed for his office's report on the Trump administration's "zero tolerance" migrant family separations.

Without Sessions' testimony, Inspector General Horowitz testified, his office could not answer the question of why the Justice Department did not consult with the U.S. Marshals Service or federal prosecutors in order to track separated children and reunite them quickly with their parents before announcing zero tolerance on April 6, 2018.

As a result of the lack of consultation, those groups, Horowitz said, were caught off guard when parents started being referred for prosecution, and more than 500 children are still separated from their parents today.

Department of Justice Inspector General Michael Horowitz prepares to testify in a Senate Committee On Homeland Security And Governmental Affairs hearing at the U.S. Capitol on Dec. 18, 2019.Samuel Corum / Getty Images file

"Unfortunately, the [Office of the Inspector General] was not able to interview former Attorney General Jeff Sessions as part of this review because he left the Department shortly after the initiation of our review," Horowitz told the House Oversight Committee. "As this committee is aware, the OIG does not have the ability to compel the testimony of former department employees."

Horowitz asked the committee to try once again to pass legislation that would give his and other inspector general's offices the power to compel testimony from non-employees.

The report found that a pilot program of zero tolerance, run out of the El Paso, Texas border sector from March to November 2017, did identify problems, mainly that separating children without a process in place for tracking them meant they could not be quickly returned to their parents. An official from the U.S. Attorney's office in El Paso wrote a memo on the lessons learned from that pilot program, but, as NBC News reported, that memo was never sent to Washington.

Without Sessions testimony, the report does not answer whether the former attorney general knew about the harmful impacts of the pilot program before he announced the policy would be applied across the border.

Democrats on the committee continued to press Horowitz for answers on how the Justice Department allowed the policy to continue for months when it was clear children were being lost and harmed.

Rep. Brenda Lawrence of Michigan asked Horowitz whether Sessions made any efforts to mitigate the trauma to children once it became clear from media reports that children were being traumatized under zero tolerance.

"We didn't see any evidence of efforts to mitigate the impact," Horowitz said in response to Lawrence.

"This never should have happened. It infuriates me because this administration did not care about the repercussions and the trauma that would be caused to these children," said Rep. Jimmy Gomez.

Horowitz did say that, based on the accounts of those in meetings with Sessions, "it was certainly the understanding of Sessions" that children would be separated from their parents.

Talking points Sessions brought to a May 2018 meeting at the White House showed the Justice Department expected children to be separated for long enough to be sent to the custody of Health and Human Services. Knowing this, cabinet officials voted in a show of hands vote to move forward with the policy anyway.

Rather than defending or criticizing the policy, Republicans on the committee said the focus should now be on preventing child trafficking and Biden's policies of what they called "amnesty" for immigrants crossing the border illegally.

"I have some news for you, Donald Trump is no longer president. Joe Biden is president…We spend more time today investigating the Trump administration," said Republican Ranking Member James Comer of Kentucky.