In 2012, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley was ubiquitous on the campaign trail for President Barack Obama’s re-elect, appearing regularly on cable TV and in spin rooms to lob attacks on behalf of the president. He was the only governor on Obama’s National Finance Committee. He and his Celtic rock band even played the White House on St. Patrick’s Day.
But all of that goodwill came tumbling down Friday after O’Malley, who is positioning himself for a White House bid in 2016, whacked the White House’s handling of the surge of unaccompanied minors across the nation’s southern border. “It is contrary to everything we stand for to try to summarily send children back to death,” O’Malley told reporters at the National Governors Association, breaking with the president who has said that most of the migrants will be returned to their home countries. The statement drew a private complaint from Domestic Policy Director Cecilia Muñoz in the form of a phone call.
But that phone call didn’t stay private, with Muñoz’s frustrations relayed to the press on Tuesday, as well as O’Malley’s request on the call to keep the children out of a proposed detention facility in Westminster, Md. The leak—which Democratic operatives pinned on the White House and which O’Malley pinned on Muñoz personally in a conversation with the Washington Post—suggested that the governor was being a hypocrite, gaining points with the Democratic base for calling more humane treatment for the children while declining to house them in his state.
"He privately said 'please don't send these kids to western Maryland,'" the “Democratic source” behind the leaked call told CNN.
But O’Malley and his aides offer a sharply different take on what transpired. "What I said was that would not be the most inviting site in Maryland. There are already hundreds of kids already located throughout Maryland," O'Malley told CNN Wednesday morning. Days after the call, the proposed facility was sprayed with misspelled graffiti, saying “No illeagels here. No undocumented Democrats.”
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest declined to discuss the source of the leaked details of the phone call. "From the podium here, I'm not going to be in a position to share the details of a private conversation between a senior White House official and a prominent governor of an important state," he said, adding that the relationship between the White House and O'Malley was "as strong as ever."
A senior O’Malley administration official said the state is working with the federal government on a number of Maryland sites to house the detainee children. On Monday, O’Malley’s administration began the process to speed licensing for future Department of Health and Human Services facilities in the state. “His focus continues to be on trying to be a constructive force in resolving this humanitarian crisis at the border and making sure that these children are cared for while they await due process,” the official said.
The sharp White House response and the controversy over the Maryland facility masks the real controversy at play. The real difference between the O’Malley and the White House is not whether the children should be housed in Maryland, but how the illegal immigrants should be treated in the first place. “The better course here is to place as many kids with families and relatives as we possibly can or use the available foster system,” O’Malley said Friday, saying they should be held in the “least restrictive setting,” rather than the current facilities which he compared to “kennels.” The White House, on the other hand, is seeking a legal change that will allow them to more quickly deport those children that do not present humanitarian claims, without ever placing with families in the United States. It is that law-and-order approach that has the White House on defense from many in its own party.