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FRONTLINE: Zero Tolerance

In "Zero Tolerance," FRONTLINE examines how President Donald Trump turned immigration into a powerful political weapon that fueled division and violence. This photo is of President Donald Trump visiting the U.S.-Mexico Border in Otay Mesa, Calif., on Sept. 18, 2019.
Courtesy of REUTERS/Tom Brenner
In "Zero Tolerance," FRONTLINE examines how President Donald Trump turned immigration into a powerful political weapon that fueled division and violence. This photo is of President Donald Trump visiting the U.S.-Mexico Border in Otay Mesa, Calif., on Sept. 18, 2019.

Airs Tuesday, Oct. 22, 2019 at 10 p.m. on KPBS TV + Thursday, Oct. 24 at 10 p.m. on KPBS 2

⁠—FRONTLINE Investigates How Donald Trump Turned Immigration into a Powerful Political Weapon⁠

The Film Is the First of Three New FRONTLINE Documentaries on Immigration Premiering This Season

Donald Trump has made opposition to immigration the signature policy of his presidency, and used anti-immigration fervor to animate his supporters and fuel a political movement.

Now, a new documentary from FRONTLINE’s acclaimed political team tells the inside story of how an unlikely group of outsiders became the driving force behind Trump’s most controversial initiatives, as part of a grand strategy they would call "Zero Tolerance."

“Behind the current crisis at the border lie years of planning by three immigration hardliners who saw in Donald Trump a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” says FRONTLINE filmmaker Michael Kirk ("Trump’s Showdown," "Divided States of America" and "The Choice 2016"). “Our film traces how the behind-the-scenes efforts of those three hardliners — Stephen Miller, Jeff Sessions and Steve Bannon — helped propel Trump to the presidency, transform the country’s politics, and bring America’s immigration policies to where they are today.”

Drawing on nearly 40 lengthy, on-camera interviews, the documentary describes how Bannon, Miller and Sessions saw in the Trump candidacy a chance to roll back immigration — and how they have waged a war inside the White House to keep an unpredictable president on course.

“I said, this is our guy,” Bannon tells FRONTLINE. “He’s a very imperfect instrument, but he’s an armor-piercing shell.”

"Zero Tolerance" traces the Bannon-Sessions-Miller alliance on immigration back to a fateful dinner in 2012.

The three men — head of the controversial right-wing website Breitbart, an Alabama senator, and his young aide — shared a belief that America was under threat from immigrants. They believed an anti-immigration message could fuel a populist, nationalist movement.

At the time, the odds were against them. As the film recounts using rare and surprising archival footage, the Republican Party and even many hard-right figures like Sean Hannity were supportive of a compromise on immigration.

“If you were sitting there that night, the audaciousness of what they were plotting was astonishing. And you wouldn’t have given them much of a chance of success,” Michael Shear, author of "Border Wars" with Julie Hirschfield Davis, tells FRONTLINE.

"Zero Tolerance" shows how the trio went on to take on the Republican establishment, using immigration as a wedge issue — and allying with an unlikely candidate for the presidency who they thought could bring their anti-immigrant “grand design” all the way to the White House.

“I remember riding on the campaign plane with Sessions, Stephen Miller, Steve Bannon. And they suddenly had this vessel in Donald Trump and they were giddy,” Cliff Sims, a former White House communications aide, tells FRONTLINE. “I mean, they were really excited. Like, ‘This is our moment. This is our historical moment.’”

With unique access and firsthand accounts, the film shows that while Trump rode to power amid a chorus of “Build the Wall,” behind the scenes the president was an unreliable ally on implementing key anti-immigration plans.

As the president waffled, Miller, Sessions and Bannon played the central role in bringing their “imperfect instrument” back into line.

Donald Trump and “The Snake” | “Zero Tolerance” | FRONTLINE

Though only Miller is now still standing in the Trump administration, the film shows how the trio’s years of planning around immigration are still shaping decisions.

It’s a must-watch look at how America’s immigration policies — and the rhetoric and images surrounding them — reached this moment.

“[Miller] believes anytime the country is focused on immigration, the president is winning,” McKay Coppins of The Atlantic tells FRONTLINE. “So when you’re at the border, getting footage of crying children being ripped from the arms of their mothers, that would seem to most people like bad— a bad development for the President. To Stephen Miller, he thinks that this is drawing the attention once again to the issue we care about most … he sees that as a win.”

In tandem with the premiere of “Zero Tolerance,” and as part of the FRONTLINE Transparency Project, FRONTLINE will publish a digital collection in video and text of nearly 40 interviews that were conducted for the making of the film.

These extensive, on-the-record conversations with sources including Bannon and others from Breitbart, conservative commentator Ann Coulter, Acting Director of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Office Ken Cuccinelli, former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, and lawmakers including Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) will offer firsthand perspectives and new insights into the politics of immigration in America.

Up Next:

Two additional FRONTLINE reports on immigration will air later this season: “Kids Caught in the Crackdown” (in collaboration with The Associated Press) on Tuesday, Nov. 12, and “Targeting El Paso” later in the season.

Related Article: Trump Admin Shifting to Privatize Migrant Child Detention by Garance Burke Associated Press • Martha Mendoza Associated Press

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A FRONTLINE production with Kirk Documentary Group, Ltd. The director is Michael Kirk. The producers are Michael Kirk, Mike Wiser, Jim Gilmore, Gabrielle Schonder, and Philip Bennett. The writers are Michael Kirk and Mike Wiser. The reporters are Jim Gilmore and Gabrielle Schonder. The executive producer of FRONTLINE is Raney Aronson-Rath.