Trump administration officials sought to bus detained immigrants to so-called sanctuary cities as a way to retaliate against the president's adversaries, two sources with knowledge of the discussions confirmed to NBC News Friday.
A former Department of Homeland Security official said the plan, first reported by The Washington Post, was ultimately scrapped when it was determined to be "so illegal." A White House official who confirmed the broad outlines of the proposal Friday morning pushed back on the idea that it was meant as retaliation toward political rivals, however, calling that "absolutely ridiculous."
The official insisted the White House had never pressured Immigration and Customs Enforcement to put the plan in motion, but simply floated it to officials at the agency.
DHS on Thursday night told NBC News the proposal had been "a suggestion that was floated and rejected, which ended any further discussion."
The White House official confirmed the idea came up twice — initially as a query to ICE about the possibility, and later to inquire why it wouldn't be legally doable. Matthew Albence, who starts Friday as acting head of ICE, was involved in the assessment of the plan and the ultimate conclusion that it would not be feasible.
The Post quoted DHS officials as saying the administration sought to release detainees in the San Francisco-based district of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and in other strongly Democratic districts. It said the White House told ICE that the plan was partly meant to conserve jail space but also partly to "send a message to Democrats."
A source familiar with the plan told NBC News it was designed to "somehow hurt Pelosi."
Another source, the former DHS official, told NBC News of the Trump administration's thinking: "Why release [migrants] into Yuma or Phoenix when you can release them in San Francisco where they want them?"
"The extent of this administration's cynicism and cruelty cannot be overstated," a spokeswoman for Pelosi told NBC News. "Using human beings — including little children — as pawns in their warped game to perpetuate fear and demonize immigrants is despicable."
The Post reported that two DHS whistleblowers independently reported the busing plan to Congress and that several DHS officials confirmed their accounts. Two DHS officials said Stephen Miller, a senior policy adviser who is widely reported to have assumed control of U.S. border policy, discussed the proposal with ICE, according to The Post.
"Sanctuary cities" is a term used to describe jurisdictions that limit or ban cooperation with federal immigration authorities. Trump has accused Democrats of trying to "turn America into one giant sanctuary city for violent criminals and MS-13 and other gang killers."