Political News

Democratic lawmakers rip HHS secretary call on family separations as 'weak'

Posted July 6, 2018 3:26 p.m. EDT

— Democratic lawmakers tweeted harsh criticism of a call with Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar on Friday that was meant to discuss the Trump administration's practice of family separation at the border.

Azar hosted two calls, one with senators and one with House members.

After the call, Sen. Richard Blumenthal tweeted, "Just got off the phone w/ HHS. I am furious&horrified after immigration conference call -- virtually no separated children have been reunified; no system, no plan, no path to assure reunification; no answers to key questions. Strategy seems to be: blame everyone else."

The Connecticut Democrat continued: "On HHS immigration call, more shocking questions raised about whether info and system exists to reunify children with parents. Call limited to 35 minutes, most of it Secretary Azar's canned speech."

The tweet thread ended with: "HHS censoring&blocking Senators from visiting facilities housing separated children -- saying only Senators approved by Chair and Ranking Member of Judiciary Committee are permissible. Why are they evading Congressional scrutiny?"

He wasn't the only Democratic lawmaker angered by the call. Sen. Martin Heinrich, of New Mexico, was also upset, calling the secretary "weak."

"Just got off a call with HHS Secretary open to all senators on family separation crisis the administration created. Secretary didn't take a single question. Weak," Heinrich tweeted.

On the 30-minute Senate call, the secretary did not answer a single question, according to a Senate source. A deputy to Azar answered questions and Democratic Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada were the only senators who asked questions, the source said.

Democratic Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii also tweeted about the call, calling it "Orwellian in its overconfidence."

"Just got off a conference call with HHS about reuniting kids with their parents. They read from a script for around 20 minutes and then they took only 3 questions from Senators. It was Orwellian in its overconfidence and vagueness. I am more, not less worried for these kids," he tweeted.

A Democratic Senate aide briefed on the call said it was "total propaganda and a waste of time."

A Democratic House aide briefed on the call with House members told CNN that Reps. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas, Pramila Jayapal of Washington state and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California asked questions during the call.

"Just got off phone with HHS Secretary and other Members of Congress. No information given on reuniting families separated at border. Complete lack of understanding of the harm being done to children. They took 3 questions and ended call. Very angry about this," tweeted Rep. David Cicilline of Rhode Island.

The call came a day after Azar told reporters he estimates that under 3,000 children who may have been separated from their parents are in government custody -- a figure far higher than his department released just nine days ago.

HHS had previously reported it had 2,047 children from separated families in its care.

President Donald Trump reversed course last month and signed an executive order intended to keep undocumented families together, but the administration is still facing scrutiny and questions over the families separated as a result of its widely criticized "zero-tolerance" immigration policy.

This story is breaking and will be updated.