LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Even President Trump's allies are questioning his administration on one of his go-to issues, immigration. Images and stories of children being taken away from their parents at the border have Trump on the defensive. Let's start this hour with NPR's Mara Liasson. Hi, Mara.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi, Lulu.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Let's talk about that policy. The president's trying to distance himself from it.
LIASSON: That's right. Immigration has been his go-to issue, but it cuts both ways. The president doesn't like the pictures of those kids in cages. He doesn't want to be blamed for it. Some of his allies, including prominent religious leaders like Franklin Graham and moderate Republicans in the House, including the speaker of the House, don't like the policy. But what does he do when he finds himself on the unpopular end of an issue? He blames someone else. And here's what he said.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I hate the children being taken away. The Democrats have to change their law. That's their law.
LIASSON: Truly, there is no law that says you have to separate kids from their families. There's a new policy, which was announced by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, discussed publicly by White House chief of staff John Kelly. And the policy was meant to deter families coming over the border. Don't make this arduous trip with your kids because you're going to get separated from them. And as far as a law goes, the Republicans have all three branches of government. And if the president wanted to change any law, he could force Mitch McConnell to do what he's asked him to do many times, which is get rid of the legislative filibuster, so he can pass things without Democratic votes. But on this one, he does not want to be seen as the person splitting up families.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's right. Although, we should mention that the images of kids in cages was during the Obama administration and unaccompanied minors coming to this country. There's something really confusing, though, about these mixed messages. I thought his stock-in-trade was being hardline on immigration.
LIASSON: It is his stock-in-trade. He uses anger about illegal immigrants, fear of immigrants, resentment of immigrants as a mobilizing tool for his base at his rallies. He leads chants of animals - animals referring to MS-13 gang members. He said that Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats love illegal immigrants more than they love American citizens. But at the same time, I think, by these comments, he's indicating that he feels vulnerable on this issue, too. He doesn't want to be the person that Democrats can point to as the guy who separated kids from their parents. And as I said, moderate Republicans in the House, including Paul Ryan, want to vote against this. And the president says he would actually sign the law. There's a bill that will come up in the House that includes, among other immigration measures, an end to this policy. He says he will sign this. But at the same time, he doesn't want to take responsibility for it.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Mara, I want to turn to something else. There was this really contentious moment with Trump on another subject and the press gaggle where he spoke on Friday. Let me play the tape.
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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: As you report, you said twice now that it exonerated you, and it proved there's no collusion.
TRUMP: If you write the IG report, I've been totally exonerated. As far as I'm concerned...
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: It had nothing to with collusion.
TRUMP: Take a look at it. Take - no. Take a look at the investigation. Take a look at how it started. Take a look at the horrible statements that Peter Strzok, the chief investigator, said. And take a look at what he did with Hillary Clinton. Take a look...
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Should he be fired? Should Peter Strzok be fired?
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: It has nothing to do with collusion. Why are you lying about it, sir?
TRUMP: I'll tell you what. You're asking me...
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So, Mara, people have commented on this exchange, that this is the first time they can recall a reporter calling the president a liar to his face. Trump's reaction to this IG report is apparently just no collusion, which prompted that exchange.
LIASSON: Right. Now, even for Donald Trump, who is famous for using what he calls truthful hyperbole - and others have called it falsehoods or inaccuracies, even as you just heard lies - this was extraordinary because the report was about the handling of the Clinton email investigation, not the Russia meddling in the election. It also was about the behavior of FBI agents assigned to that investigation. The report was even-handed. It said there was no political bias against Donald Trump. But it did say James Comey was insubordinate. He used bad judgment. It called out specific FBI agents for sending text messages that showed animus to Trump. But it did not, in any way, shape or form, deal with collusion. And, in fact, it said that Hillary Clinton was on the receiving end of some FBI misconduct. And, of course, Democrats believe she would be in the White House without James Comey. So this was a mischaracterization at best of what that report said.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Mara, even for President Trump, this exchange with the press on the lawn was a lot. What should we make of it?
LIASSON: One way to look at it is that he feels uninhibited and unleashed. He has fewer guardrails now, fewer advisers who are willing to tell him to tamp down the rhetoric. Or you could say he's feeling the heat. His former lawyer, Michael Cohen, his former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, are either in jail or cooperating with prosecutors. Or you could just say this is Trump's modus operandi. He believes if you're not fighting, you're losing. If you're not punching back, you're losing. And it's always worked for him. And this is the strategy he's using with Bob Mueller. He wants to undermine Mueller's credibility so that whatever Mueller comes up with he can dismiss as nothing more than a partisan witch hunt.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: NPR's Mara Liasson, thank you.
LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.