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From Snakes To Spikes, Reporters Reveal Trump's Extreme Border Proposals

President Trump made building a border wall between the U.S. and Mexico a cornerstone of his 2016 presidential campaign. But when, after the election, efforts to build the wall stalled, he turned to other possible options — including constructing a trench filled with snakes and alligators — according to a forthcoming book.


Other segments from the episode on October 3, 2019

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, October 3, 2019: Interview with Julie Hirschfeld Davis and Michael Shear; Review of the film Joker.


Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The story that's been in the news about how one of President Trump's ideas to close off the border was to dig a moat and fill it with snakes and alligators, that was first reported by my guests, Julie Hirschfeld Davis and Michael Shear. They're journalists with The New York Times who have written a new book, called, "Border Wars: Inside Trump's Assault On Immigration."

They write that, for all its frustrations and failures, Trump's attempt to upend the nation's immigration system has had its share of successes. Through little-noticed rules and regulations, his administration made it more dangerous and costly to be undocumented. It's targeted undocumented immigrants who live in the U.S. for decades and tagged them for immediate removal and now takes much longer to get a visa to come to America, and the wait to become a naturalized citizen has doubled. The number of refugees admitted to the U.S. has plummeted to its lowest level in more than three decades.

Shear and Hirschfeld Davis also write that Trump's assault on immigration reflects deep truths about the most unconventional of presidents - about who he trusts and how he governs, and about the way in which he has impacted the country he leads. Michael Shear covers the White House for The New York Times. Julie Hirschfeld Davis covered Congress and is now a congressional editor with the Times.

Michael Shear, Julie Hirschfeld Davis, welcome to FRESH AIR. So let's start with something a lot of America is talking about, alligators and snakes in moats around the Mexican-American border. This is one of the ideas that Trump had, to have, like, basically a moat, (laughter), across the border with alligators and snakes and who knows what else in the water. It sounds so preposterous. It sounds medieval. What was the context of this proposal?

JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS: Well, President Trump has been just taken with this idea of a physical barrier of the wall for many years. And he would talk about it and have very vivid descriptions of what he wanted it to look and feel like. He considers himself a builder. That's one of the reasons his advisers initially thought of the wall. It was almost as a mnemonic device to get him to sort of remember to talk about illegal immigration and his plans for cracking down on it. So going in, he was thinking about the physical aspects of this structure. But he came to really be frustrated with the inability to get the wall built quickly, and he would sort of cast about for other ideas of how he could make it more effective or something else he might be able to do.

And so he would raise this idea of a trench, and maybe we could have a water-filled trench. And he raised it so many times that, actually, his aides finally went and got a cost estimate for what a trench would cost. And it was going to be three times more expensive as a wall. But it didn't really deter him because he was so enamored with this idea of having countermeasures. And so when they would have discussions about these things, sometimes he would raise, well, you could have snakes inside it, or you could have crocodiles inside it - or alligators inside it - excuse me.

And even though it seemed preposterous to his advisers the first and second times that he would bring this up, they kind of got to the point where they couldn't really tell whether he was serious or not serious. All they knew, all he seemed to really know, is that he wanted something that would be dangerous, and threatening and a deterrent.

GROSS: Yeah. He wanted something that would be punitive that would, like, maim people or burn people, cut them to pieces. This is what you write in the book. So what are some of the more extreme ideas he had for a punitive barrier?

MICHAEL SHEAR: Right. So he talked about this constantly. He - the wall, in his view, should not just be kind of a structure that would stop people on the other side, but that anybody who tried to climb it would be hurt severely. So he talked about painting it black. He would always say flat black, Kirstjen - talking to Kirstjen Nielsen, his Homeland Security secretary. He'd say, I want it to be black. And that was because he wanted it to heat up in the sun in the - you know, along the border, and it would become so hot that it would burn people. And he wanted concertina wire, the really sharp razor wire, across the whole thing so people would be cut if they climbed.

And he always talked about spikes on the top of the wall that were sharp, pointy enough, that both would pierce human flesh and also so that it would deter birds because he always talked about the beauty of the wall. He wanted the wall to be beautiful, and he thought that if birds landed on the wall, they would poop on it and then it wouldn't look nice anymore. He wanted the fence electrified, the wall electrified, so that people would be shocked. And ultimately, at one point, he actually publicly said that when migrants would throw rocks at the military or the border guards that the military should just respond with rifles, implying that they should just kill them in response.

His aides said to him, look, you can't do that, sir. They begged him. They rushed to get the use-of-force policy for the federal government and showed it to him and said, we can't respond with lethal force to somebody throwing rocks. And his response to that was to sort of back down and say, OK, fine. We can't shoot to kill. But then he suggested, well, why don't we just shoot them in the leg? That'll slow them down.

And we were told that there was a meeting where he said this, and the aides sort of sat there kind of slack-jawed and finally said to him, no, sir, that's not - you can't do that, either.

GROSS: And he seemed to lose track of his own ideas, even. The example I'm thinking of is when Kirstjen Nielsen was the head of the Department of Home Security, she had a mock-up made of a steel wall just to distract Trump because he was all over her about crazy things that he wanted, and she didn't intend this to be the real thing. It was just meant to be, like, here's a possible example. And then he tweeted it as if, like, this was the final proposal for the wall. Would you describe what happened?

HIRSCHFELD DAVIS: Yeah. So the president would constantly sort of nag Kirstjen Nielsen about what he wanted the wall to look like and be like. And he would often say to Kirstjen Nielsen, you know, I thought of something else and, here's a great idea, let's do this. And because he would become so absorbed in these ideas and it was hard to get him off of that and onto another topic, oftentimes the solution that she'd come up with is just, OK, take it down, take notes and let's give him what he thinks he wants. And then at least he'll be satisfied, and we can go onto something else.

So that is what she did at the end of a meeting in the Oval Office with him where he was talking about his idea, a very detailed idea, about the wall. She started just taking it down. She brought it back to the department. She gave it to aides and said, let's do a mock-up of this. I want a drawing of this. She didn't really tell them what it was for, but it was done. And she sort of put it in her back pocket. She put it in a folder, and she had it ready for the next time the president really kind of went off in a rage about the wall wasn't yet getting built the way he wanted, or immigration policy in general wasn't going the way he wanted it to.

And during one of these moments, right around the time the government shut down at the end of 2018, she brought it out and she said, you know, I'm - I mocked this thing up, the wall that you were describing. Here, look at this. And as she, I think, predicted, the president was thrilled with it. And he immediately wanted to tweet it out, which became kind of a problem because, again, this was never supposed to be something that was going to be reality. It was meant to sort of distract him so he'd move on to the next topic.

But he did. He ended up tweeting it out, and he said, you know, this is what we're building. Which, it wasn't at that point. But it was just another example of how, you know, he's very fickle with these things. And toward the very end of her tenure, he brought it up again in the last meeting that he had with Kirstjen Nielsen before he basically told her she was fired. He started bringing up a cement wall. So he's back to where he started during the campaign, and...

GROSS: Even though he had been told that a cement wall won't work, it's too easy to, like, drill holes in it and the whole thing or parts of it could just collapse?

SHEAR: And that was the - that was one of the many things that left aides for President Trump kind of exasperated was that he just - they couldn't quite ever get him off an idea. They were never sure. You know, they would sometimes go through with him both the practical reasons, often the legal reasons or the moral implications of something that he wanted to do, and they would walk him through why they - why he couldn't or shouldn't do it. And sometimes, he would sort of nod and agree, but inevitably, the next meeting, you know, the next week, the next month, the idea would resurface.

And I think one of the things that we think that shows is not only his decision-making in the context of immigration, which is what our book is about, but really more broadly, kind of the way that he approaches decision-making and policymaking in the administration writ large, which is to say, not in a very kind of disciplined and kind of logical, methodical way, but rather, the kind of scattershot ideas that pop into his head become the source of conversations at that moment.

GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guests are New York Times journalists Julie Hirschfeld Davis and Michael Shear. They're authors of the new book "Border Wars: Inside Trump's Assault On Immigration." We'll be right back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guests are the authors of the new book "Border Wars: Inside Trump's Assault On Immigration." Julie Hirschfeld Davis and Michael Shear are both journalists with The New York Times.

One thing I was thinking throughout your book, because your book is filled with examples of what you just described - impractical ideas, illegal ideas that astound, that shock members of his administration - not all of them 'cause some of them totally support him and are feeding him similar ideas - but I just keep wondering, what was it like for the members of the administration during the period that you're writing about until they resigned or were fired? 'Cause there's several people in that position who were forced out or just decided they couldn't take it anymore, and for the most part, they still haven't gone public. They'll talk off the record to reporters, but I'm just wondering, like, if they feel - if they're so disturbed by what they saw and thought that the president himself has all these impractical and illegal ideas and won't back off of them when told that they're impractical or illegal, why don't they want to sound the alarm about that?

HIRSCHFELD DAVIS: I think that's one of the most interesting aspects of this for us, and like Mike said, this cuts across all issues, not just immigration. But you get the sense of a team of advisers that is very much - many of them are sort of government professionals. They've been in government jobs before. They know that Trump hasn't, so they entered this kind of administration understanding that a lot of what they were going to be doing would be sort of explaining what was possible and what wasn't. And then they reached a point where they became accustomed to this sort of thing where he would bring up these ideas at meetings that seemed far-fetched to the point of absurdity, to the point of really being unacceptable.

And I think for many of them, for a long time - if not for their entire tenure - there was a lot of rationalization that went on. You know, he doesn't know what he's saying. He doesn't really understand. There are not that many people who stayed on, I don't think, who actually would say, you know, he's a bad person. These are bad ideas that he has. He wants to hurt people. I think many of them would chalk it up to, you know, just a complete lack of understanding of how these things work and a person who just had these gut instincts that were just off and that, you know, he hadn't grown up in government. He hadn't grown up in public service. He just didn't get it.

But I do think that around the time that the family separation policy became public and became a real flashpoint, people's patience started to really run out. And they started to really question whether this was worth it, whether staying inside the administration was - whether there was any upside, really, because many of them sort of had the sense initially that if they stayed around, things could only get so bad because he might not understand - President Trump might not understand the implications of what he was asking for. But they did, and then they would sort of be a check against the worst of his impulses.

But around the time of, you know, the middle of last year, I would say, that started to really become a challenging rationalization to maintain, and I think there started to be a lot of alarm and a lot more sort of introspection about whether this could continue.

SHEAR: Yeah. I just would add that I think also there were - talked to about 150 people, I think, ultimately for the book, and I think there were a lot of them that were inside the administration whose belief - who sort of rationalized staying by thinking to themselves, if I leave, you know, the person that he's going to get is going to only be more willing to do the kinds of things that we don't think he can do.

And, you know, they were - these were complicated people who both agreed, in some cases, with the end goal that the president might want to achieve - meaning, for example, reducing the level of immigration or making it harder for an asylum seeker to come into the United States. They just were frustrated by the process and the means that the president wanted to - sort of reached for to do it. And they sort of decided to themselves, well, you know, if I leave, it's just, you know, more of a runway for him to do whatever the heck he wants, and so I'll stay and kind of be that check.

GROSS: Well, they had a point because you write about how, at some point, Stephen Miller, who is the aide that basically heads up the immigration policy for the Trump administration - and he's very extreme in his anti-immigration views - he basically purged the administration of people who were obstacles to the immigration policies that he wanted and replaced them with people more similar to himself.

SHEAR: Right. Like, I mean, that's - essentially, when Kirstjen Nielsen was fired - and I think Nielsen's a complicated figure. She was both a supporter and a vociferous supporter of some of the president's policies, but also, as we described over and over again in the book, somebody who privately would try to walk the president back from the brink.

Ultimately, her saying no to him enough finally convinced him to fire her at the end of - at the beginning of April of this year. And that started a cascade of these firings that Miller essentially had orchestrated to kind of finally, as you say, purge DHS and the relevant agencies of some of these people who he thought were standing in the way and slow-rolling and slow-walking the president's agenda.

And what you see is that, over the last several months, many of the things that had been kind of stuck in the pipeline - really restrictive policies governing who could apply for asylum, some harsh policies about sending migrants back over the border to wait in Mexico, you know, a regulation on punishing essentially immigrants who are poor - all of those things had kind of been stuck in the pipeline. And all of them have sort of now moved through and been enacted.

Now, some of them are being challenged in court. And so they're not necessarily in place yet. But from the president's perspective, the purge worked because the people who are now in those roles are fully embracing what the president wants to do.

GROSS: So one of the turning points that led Stephen Miller to do this purge was a week in March when the president gave the command to just close the border by noon tomorrow, just close it. And everybody was saying, well, you can't do that. I mean, it's just, like, technically impossible. I mean, like, it can't be done. And Trump wanted it done anyways. But does Stephen Miller think that that actually was a proposal that could be activated and accomplished?

HIRSCHFELD DAVIS: No. I mean, I think like the other people in the room that day in late March in the scene that we recount, where, you know, President Trump was just going absolutely berserk about the border numbers climbing, the crossings just, you know, going up and up and up, he understood, too, that that would be a disastrous thing to do. But I think the difference is he had been pushing a really aggressive agenda of ways to try to get the border numbers under control that not everyone else in that room really embraced.

And so, I mean, he - at some of these moments, he understands, as well as any of the skeptics in the administration, that what the president is asking for can't happen. In this particular case, closing the border was going to be, as you said, logistically impossible, could be economically - it would be economically disastrous. There were all sorts of reasons why that couldn't happen.

But interestingly, one of the ways in which Stephen Miller is effective in this realm, one of the reasons that he has survived where other aides have not is because he understands how Trump's mind works on this issue in particular, that a lot of this comes from a place of deep anger and frustration, that this is a broken system, which pretty much everyone both inside this administration and outside the administration agree on and that the president is repeatedly being told he can't do this and he can't do that. And that's not allowed, either.

And so Miller kind of stokes that for strategic advantage, to get his proposals in front of the president and to get, you know, a more aggressive approach sort of taken up by the various agencies. But then you have him in these moments kind of caught up short because the logical conclusion of that is the president is going to be left sitting there saying, well, why isn't anything happening the way I want it to be?

So even as Miller and others in the room that day explained to him why the border really can't just be shut down like flipping a switch tomorrow at noon, which is what the president said he wanted, he's thinking to himself, OK, well, this may be the opportunity that I've been looking for to really get rid of some of these people inside the administration who have been impediments to moving these things forward.

Remember that Stephen Miller is not a lawyer. He's very sort of steeped in immigration policy, but his background is as a communicator. And so he views a lot of people inside the administration, who started out with a lot of the same goals that he has and the president has on immigration, as almost sort of betraying him because they are telling him all of the reasons why, you know, the actions that the president wants to take and that he wants the president to be able to take are just not feasible, not allowable under the law. And so he - and he questions, you know, why - these are my allies. These are my friends. Why can't they deliver what we want to deliver?

SHEAR: I was just going to say also that Stephen's very cagey about making sure that if there are people who are going to say no to him that he doesn't seem like he's the one that's saying no, right? He lets other people do that and then uses that against them.

GROSS: So he could still be the good guy. He's never opposing Trump.

SHEAR: Right.

GROSS: My guests are Michael Shear and Julie Hirschfeld Davis, authors of the new book "Border Wars: Inside Trump's Assault On Immigration." We'll talk more after we take a short break. And Justin Chang will review the new film "Joker," starring Joaquin Phoenix as Batman's most famous nemesis.

I'm Terry Gross, And this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview I recorded with New York Times journalists Michael Shear and Julie Hirschfeld Davis, authors of the new book "Border Wars: Inside Trump's Assault On Immigration." It's about how the president has tried to drastically reduce immigration. It describes some of his more impractical, absurd or illegal ideas and the divisions within his administration over his orders. Shear covers the White House for the Times. Hirschfeld Davis used to cover Congress and is now a congressional editor at the Times.

One of the things you write about is how, inside the Trump Administration, data was used very selectively when it came to immigration. Data was often used to support preordained conclusions. Here's the policy we want. Here's the data we're going to pick and choose that supports the policy we want. We will exclude the data that does not support it. Give us an example of that.

HIRSCHFELD DAVIS: In the book, we talk a lot about how Miller targeted the refugee resettlement program and really had a goal of cutting down drastically on the amount of refugees that got admitted to the country every year. And one of the ways in which he tried to do that was to talk up the costs of the program and sort of escalate and intensify all of the fears that were out there, particularly among the anti-immigration crowd, about refugees and what threats they might pose to the country. So within this process, as the National Security Council debated what the refugee ceiling should be for the coming fiscal year, Stephen Miller wanted to have a study that showed that refugees cost the economy a lot of money, and he also wanted data in there about the relatively larger threat they posed relative to other immigrants.

The problem with both of those was that there was not government data to actually back that up, but he and his allies within the White House and some of the agencies repeatedly would try to infuse the discussions with these kind of faux data points or twisted data points, and the career professionals would often just push back and say, we have to get that out of the discussion paper. It's not right. But it was very difficult to do that when you have someone like Stephen Miller, who has the kind of clout that he had inside the White House.

SHEAR: Hey, Terry. Can I just interrupt for a sec just to say...

GROSS: Sure.

SHEAR: ...He just tweeted about us...

GROSS: Oh, no.

SHEAR: ...Although he misspelled it, so...

GROSS: Wait. I just want to explain here. We're recording this on Wednesday, October 2. So tell us what Stephen Miller just tweeted about you.

SHEAR: No, this is the president.

GROSS: The president himself? Oh.

SHEAR: Yeah. So the president just said, now the press is trying to sell the fact that I wanted a - and he says moot; I think he means moat - stuffed with alligators and snakes with an electrified fence and sharp spikes on top of our southern border. I may be tough on border security, but not that tough. The press has gone crazy. Fake news.

GROSS: OK. Was it fake news? Has the press gone crazy? Have you gone crazy? He's quoting your book, so...

SHEAR: He's...

GROSS: Or...

SHEAR: He is.

GROSS: ...Not exactly quoting it, but alluding to your book.

HIRSCHFELD DAVIS: We have not gone crazy. We have - we've gotten everything in the book from multiple officials, but interestingly, when we have presented detailed accounts of what we learned to the White House, both right before the book was submitted and right before this article was ready to go into the paper, we never got a denial. We never got any kind of dispute of the facts that we have in there. And so...

SHEAR: And in fact, the half-hour interview that we had with the president in the Oval Office back in June came after we had submitted a detailed kind of list of scenes in the book, including the moat and the alligators and the snakes, to the White House. So - and he never raised it with us, so it's interesting that, you know, obviously, now he's taking issue with it.

GROSS: Do you have that from several sources?

SHEAR: Yeah. This is - I mean, you know, multiple people that we - again, we talked to about 150 people for the book, you know, obviously not all of them in relation to that particular anecdote. But we are very comfortable that the information that we have in the book and the story was corroborated by people directly involved in the discussions and the situations that we described.

GROSS: We were talking...

SHEAR: Sorry to interrupt.

GROSS: Before the president interrupted with his tweet, we were talking about the selective use of data when it came to backing up immigration proposals within the Trump administration. That was also true with the TPS, the temporary protected status, for refugees who had been fleeing natural disasters like earthquakes, floods. And give us an example of how data was selectively used in the attempt to end that program for several countries.

SHEAR: Yeah. You know...

GROSS: For immigrants from several countries.

SHEAR: Right. I mean, so the TPS program has been a sort of staple of American policy for a couple of decades now. It is a vehicle for bringing people in who are fleeing these disasters, and there's a whole process that the State Department especially goes through, starting with the ambassadors in these countries, to justify every 18 months or so, is the - you know, do these people still deserve to stay here, or can they go home?

And so just like it had always been done, when the Trump administration came in, the bureaucracy - the State Department bureaucracy started that process of, you know, doing the evaluation, the regular evaluation of these countries. And they would use the data that they've always used. They would gather up all the statistics about how dangerous the countries were that - or how devastated the countries still were that made the case that these people couldn't go back.

The Trump administration, Stephen Miller and his allies especially, were determined not to let those be the facts that guided the decision. And so they repeatedly rewrote memos, x'ed out information that would justify why the program had to continue and the people had to be able to stay here. They would ask for different kinds of information that would - that had never been asked for before. Like, for example, you know, were the TPS recipients, the people who - the immigrants who were here because of TPS - had they committed crimes before? That had never been even considered because that wasn't part of the congressional law that was passed.

And so they essentially spent much of 2017 and leading into 2018 rewriting, recasting, trying desperately to kind of push back against the bureaucrats in the State Department who wanted to extend this program and ultimately succeeded. I mean, ultimately, the various programs for all of the major countries involved were terminated by the president, though the courts have sort of held that up for the time being. But they succeeded ultimately in pushing back against the bureaucracy on that.

HIRSCHFELD DAVIS: One of the moments in the book that we thought was really telling was when they're getting together these memos about a particular country's conditions and whether or not the status - the TPS status should be revoked. You have someone at DHS writing an email to a colleague saying, when you - when I read this memo, it reads like the one person wrote the top and then someone came up behind them with a club, clocked them over the head and somebody else finished it because what it basically had laid out was that the country conditions were such that TPS really should be extended. But then the last paragraph was, and therefore, we should terminate it. And so you see these kind of absurd outcomes where they're trying to engineer an outcome with rationales that just aren't there.

GROSS: All right. Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guests are Julie Hirschfeld Davis and Michael Shear, who are both journalists with The New York Times. Their new book is called "Border Wars: Inside Trump's Assault On Immigration." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guests are Julie Hirschfeld Davis and Michael Shear, authors of the new book "Border Wars: Inside Trump's Assault On Immigration." They're both journalists with The New York Times, based in Washington.

Reading your book, I kept thinking about the people in government taking orders from Trump and having to execute those orders when they know it's not going to work. For example, when - Kirstjen Nielsen, when she was head of Homeland Security, was given the directive from Trump to do the family separation policy, she knew that Homeland Security didn't have the resources it needed. She knew the courts didn't have the resources it would need and that, you know, across the board, that technically - no matter what you thought of morally but technically, this - and practically - this policy wasn't going to work. But she issues the directive.

SHEAR: She does. And I think, you know, part of what I think we try to describe in the book is the way in which the president really is like a bully and beats his own people into submission. I mean, she agonized over that policy, to be clear, not on moral grounds. I mean, it - we found little evidence that she struggled with whether it was right or wrong to separate families. What, in fact, she struggled with, as you say, was whether it could be done, whether it was practical, whether there would be all sorts of problems in the end.

And, you know, the president and his aides just relentlessly beat her into submission, you know? I mean, not in a literal sense but phone calls repeatedly urging her, you've got to do this. Get off your - you know, get off your butt, you know? You know, the president is going to - you know, the president wants this to happen, and you are the one standing in the way. You know, we document a Cabinet meeting in which she - he wanted to do all sorts of immigration things - closing the border down and doing things that she kept saying to him - in the middle of this Cabinet meeting - that, you know, he can't do. He absolutely relentlessly excoriated her in front of the entire Cabinet for, you know, close to an hour, leading to her almost resigning right after that. And I think that's what happened in so many cases is that they just - they sort of - they give up. And they just say, you know what? Fine. I'm going to sign the order.

GROSS: There's a remarkable Kirstjen Nielsen-Donald Trump story that you tell in the book related to drone policy. Mike, would you tell the story?

SHEAR: Yeah. This was a great - this was a fun story. I mean, it, you know...

GROSS: (Laughter) I like that you use the word fun.


SHEAR: Well, the journalist...


SHEAR: Yeah, the journalist in me. You know, this was a moment where - actually didn't have a lot to do specifically with immigration, but she had, you know - secretary of Homeland Security is in charge of all sorts of things beyond cybersecurity and all sorts of - Homeland Security is broader than just immigration. And she had been told by the folks in her office that they were trying to get legislation passed to give the government the authority to take down drones. The problem was the court - existing laws made that difficult because the sort of laws that would let you intercept wirelessly these drones kind of violated the wiretapping laws that exist. And so they wanted to change this.

And so she went to the president and said, please, Mr. President, can you, you know, sort of tweet about this, support this legislation because we really need it to pass. And she's explaining to him the logistics of why they need it to pass. And he just, you know, as he so often did, he didn't want to hear the details. He didn't want to be sort of burdened with all this. And so all he heard was, you know, drones, and we need to take them down. And he cuts her off midsentence, and says, honey - just - that's fine, honey. Just shoot them down. Sweetheart, just shoot them down. And she stops him and says, no, no, no. What I'm saying, Mr. President, is we need legislation. He just interrupted her again, you know, again, using these sort of like, you know, mildly sort of...


SHEAR: ...Sexist terms, there you go - and, you know, says, no, no, no, just shoot them out of the sky. You have my permission. And then - you know, and then it was clear the meeting was over, like that was - he was done. He didn't want to hear any of the details. And the meeting ends, and you move on. But that's - for us, I think, in addition to being kind of a fun story, but it also just captures the way in which he interacts with his staff.

GROSS: OK. Something else you report in the book - when Jared Kushner learned from the commissioner of Customs and Border Patrol that a wall - a border wall would cut illegal immigration by only about 20%, Jared said, so we've wasted the last two years. So you got this from other people not from Jared. Jared has never said that publicly. If Jared Kushner believes that the wall is really a waste of resources because it will only cut immigration by 20%, why is he not saying anything publicly?

HIRSCHFELD DAVIS: That's a great question. I mean, you know, a lot of - I think Jared Kushner does not believe in a lot of President Trump's immigration policy, frankly. More recently, we've heard him talk about the parts of it that he does agree with - this idea of having a merit-based system, which is in legislation that has no chance of becoming law. But, you know, part of the problem here is that many of Trump's advisers have views - very well-informed views, in some cases, about how you attack the problem of immigration and the things that really are broken in the system that they don't end up sharing or when they do, they get shot down.

And it's not an option for Jared Kushner to resign as the president's son-in-law. He's in a really odd spot in that regard. So he has chosen, it seems, to stay and try to do as much as possible to kind of reorient what the president is doing and saying on immigration, but he does have this influential perch, and he hasn't, in most cases, used it to really make any substantive change at the White House.

SHEAR: One of the things that is true about Jared is that he doesn't have a background in any of this. I mean, he - we're in Washington, where there are people who've been dealing with immigration policy and immigration changes and legislative proposals on immigration for decades, and he comes in. He has no experience with any of this, and the comment that he made that you just quoted about how we've wasted the last two years comes after he's essentially given a kind of immigration 101 lecture for a couple of hours by the - by some of the people in the administration. I mean, he doesn't have the gravitas. Nobody in Washington, you know, sort of sees him as somebody who is steeped in immigration policy and really understands the issue.

So he doesn't really have the gravitas, and frankly, to the second question you asked about - why haven't they sort of stood up? Why doesn't he say that? Both Jared and Ivanka have demonstrated again and again that they're not willing to cross, you know, her father, his father-in-law. I mean, you know, the same thing happened on the family separation thing, where really, whatever they might have thought privately, they didn't really say publicly. And I think that is not likely to change any time soon.

GROSS: You got to interview President Trump for about a half hour before you completed the book. What did you most want to ask him?

HIRSCHFELD DAVIS: What we really wanted to hear him reflect on was whether he had any regrets about any of these policies or the way that they unfolded. I mean, this was at the time when we went in to speak with him, when the pictures were just being released of all of the shelters with squalid conditions with children who were dirty and didn't have the right supplies at the border. It was really sort of a horrifying set of images that were coming out, and we really wanted to hear him grapple with what the results have been of his push for some of these policies. And we wanted to hear him talk about that and about whether he had any regrets about the family separation policy and, really, whether he was at all concerned or afraid that his legacy on immigration was going to be one of having sort of totally reordered the country's values and made it a place that was not welcoming to immigrants and that instead had this very draconian approach.

And what was interesting was he was very unwilling to grapple with any of those ideas. He - when he talked about the conditions at the border, he talked about, you know, this is all Obama's fault. And the family separation thing, that was just a policy that President Obama had in place, which, of course, is false. But he was really seemed to be in sort of a parallel universe when it came to what the real-world results had been of his agenda, and he had no regrets about the way that it played out, at least none that he would admit to.

GROSS: President Trump told you during your interview with him that if he likes your book, he'll tweet it out. Judging from the tweet you read us earlier, he's not going to like the book.

SHEAR: Yeah.

GROSS: I imagine he read the excerpt of the book in The New York Times, the adaptation.

SHEAR: Right. So I don't think he's seen the whole book, and we would encourage him - and we'll definitely make sure the White House has a copy of the book if he wants to read the whole thing. The president, on the one hand, wants to call us fake news and doesn't want to be, you know - to have bad stories written about him. But he also - I mean, he wants to be tough. He wants to be seen as tough on immigration, and I think sometimes, while, again, I don't think he probably will like the book in the end, I think he and Miller and some of his allies secretly think, yeah. This is exactly what we - you know, the subtitle of the book is "Inside Trump's Assault On Immigration." I think that's how they see it, too.

GROSS: I want to thank you so much for talking with us and thank you for your reporting.

SHEAR: Thank you for having us.

HIRSCHFELD DAVIS: Thanks so much.

GROSS: Michael Shear and Julie Hirschfeld Davis are the authors of the new book "Border Wars: Inside Trump's Assault On Immigration." They're both journalists with The New York Times. After a break, Justin Chang will review the new film "Joker" starring Joaquin Phoenix as Batman's most famous nemesis. This is FRESH AIR.



This is FRESH AIR. The new film "Joker" is a rage-filled origin story starring Joaquin Phoenix as Batman's most famous nemesis. It opens tomorrow, but there are some screenings beginning today. Security has been heightened at many theaters across the country because of fear related to the Aurora movie theater shooting in 2012, which was at a showing of the Batman film "The Dark Knight." Our film critic Justin Chang has this review of "Joker."

JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: "Joker" is only just now opening in theaters, but it already seems to have exhausted its potential for hype and controversy. You may have heard that it won the prestigious top prize at the Venice Film Festival and that its star Joaquin Phoenix is a likely Academy Award nominee for his astounding physical transformation. You may also have heard that the movie is much more realistic and disturbing than the average comic book adaptation and that some are anxious that its protagonist, a lonely white male misfit who starts killing people, may incite real-life acts of violence.

You can't blame people for feeling anxious in a country where mass shootings happen every week, but while "Joker" is far from a major artistic triumph, it's not an irresponsible glorification, either. It gazes with both terror and pity on Arthur Fleck, who's played by Phoenix as the saddest sack in all of Gotham City. It's 1981, and he's working as a clown for hire. He aspires to become a standup comedian, even though nothing about him or his life is remotely funny. He lives with his mother in a cramped apartment, and we learn that he once spent some time in a mental hospital.

He suffers from a rare condition that causes him to burst out in noisy, uncontrollable spasms of laughter. He meets regularly with a social worker, who has him on several different anti-depressants, until one day, she tells him that the city is cutting funding for their visits.


SHARON WASHINGTON: (As Social Worker) Arthur, I have some bad news for you. This is the last time we'll be meeting.

JOAQUIN PHOENIX: (As Arthur Fleck) You don't listen, do you? You just ask the same questions every week. How's your job? Are you having any negative thoughts? All I have are negative thoughts.

CHANG: Between Arthur's clown getup and his maniacal laugh, you can see the building blocks of the Joker's freaky, funny persona sliding into place. The director Todd Phillips, who wrote the script with Scott Silver, keeps pushing Arthur toward the point of no return. First, he's attacked by some kids in an alley, prompting him to acquire a handgun. And then he loses his job. By the time he's getting smacked around by three smug Wall Street bros on the subway, something inside him snaps, and he takes out his gun. When we see him next, he's dancing in dreamy slow motion, relishing his newfound calling as a homicidal maniac.

Phoenix makes Arthur an exceptionally vivid monster. His performance is a symphony of scowls, howls, grins, grimaces and, of course, those endless fits of laughter. It's a big, grotesquely showy piece of acting, but you can't take your eyes off him. Phoenix's work here suffers only in comparison to his own earlier performances in "The Master" and "You Were Never Really Here." The men he played in those movies were genuinely haunted figures, and you had no idea from moment to moment what they would do next. In "Joker," by contrast, you know what's ahead for Arthur Fleck. His journey is doomed - you might even say programmed - to end in madness and violence.

Phillips is best known for making "The Hangover" movies, "Old School" and other comedies of male misbehavior, and "Joker" feels, in some ways, like a comic book extension of his brand. There is a beauty and lucidity to his work here that may surprise you, and his vision of Gotham City has its own squalid grandeur. But as convincingly gritty as it looks, "Joker" falters in its attempt to conjure a backdrop of social unrest. We hear news of a rise in violent crime and anti-rich sentiment aimed at billionaire tycoons like Thomas Wayne, whose son Bruce Wayne will, of course, grow up to become Batman himself. But these stabs at political relevance feel mostly coy and disengaged.

You can sense "Joker" trying to position itself as a triumph of comic book realism along the lines of Christopher Nolan's "Dark Knight" trilogy, but there are other movies overshadowing this one, too. One crucial subplot concerns Arthur's comedy idol, a late night TV talk show host played by Robert DeNiro in an explicit nod to Martin Scorsese's "The King of Comedy." "Joker" also plays like an homage to another Scorsese-DeNiro classic - "Taxi Driver," also a psychological thriller about a man who might just be as hopeless and unreachable as the city that spawned him.

I've seen "Joker" twice now, and my feelings about it remain unresolved. Although Phillips' thin-skin defenses of his movie haven't helped matters, I can't deny my admiration of what he's accomplished - a comic book picture that avoids computer-generated spectacle and renders an iconic villain on an intimate human scale. But if "Joker" can be hard to watch at times, in the end, there's something a little too easy about its vision of a world tilting into madness. After two hours charting a man's psychological destruction and a city's descent into criminal anarchy, "Joker" finally ends with a sly wink and a maddening shrug, as if to say, stay tuned for the sequel.

GROSS: Justin Chang is a film critic for The L.A. Times. If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like our interviews this week with Conan O'Brien, actor Antonio Banderas or Jack Goldsmith, whose new memoir is about his investigation into his stepfather's involvement in the disappearance of powerful union boss Jimmy Hoffa, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews.


GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Ann Marie Baldonado, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Joel Wolfram. I'm Terry Gross.


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