Donald Trump fired Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, or he forced her to resign, or they mutually agreed she should resign, or she quit because the situation was hopeless. The odd thing is that she did what she was asked to do, as Dana Milbank explains here:
Nobody debased herself quite as often as Nielsen did in her quest to keep the job, defending Trump after the “shithole countries” and Charlottesville scandals, enduring frequent rebukes from Trump and leaks about her imminent firing, embracing his incendiary language and enduring his extralegal instincts, swallowing her moral misgivings to embrace the family-separation policy (while denying any such policy existed), and implausibly claiming that children weren’t being put in cages.
No one should forget the details:
Nielsen had already made her famous counterfactual assertion: “We do not have a policy of separating families at the border. Period.” She later stood next to Trump as he signed an order rescinding the policy they supposedly didn’t have.
When multiple witnesses described a meeting at which Trump said he wanted more immigrants from Norway and called Haiti and African nations “shithole countries,” Nielsen, who attended the meeting, said, “I don’t recall him saying the exact phrase.”
At a hearing, a senator asked her rhetorically, “Norway is a predominantly white country, isn’t it?”
“I actually do not know that, sir,” Nielsen replied, though allowing she could “imagine” that to be true.
She’d “take a bullet” for this president:
Another thing Nielsen professed not to know: the conclusion by the U.S. intelligence community that Russia interfered in the 2016 elections to boost Trump. “I’m not aware of that,” she said…
So dedicated was Nielsen to avoiding any contradiction of Trump that she echoed his view that there were “very fine people” on both sides in Charlottesville. “I think what’s important about that conversation is, it’s not that one side is right, one side is wrong,” Nielsen said of the white supremacists and counterdemonstrators.
No amount of public disgrace could deter her from serving the president’s whims. During the family-separation imbroglio, she dined at a Mexican restaurant, where hecklers pounced. Nancy Pelosi called her actions “morally reprehensible.” Even her high-school classmates called for her resignation.
But that wasn’t enough and Michael Gerson sees this:
In the end, the burnt offering of a staffer’s character is not enough. After trying to enforce and anticipate Trump’s cruel or irrational whims, he or she is generally packed off without ceremony, with diminished professional respect and, presumably, with diminished self-respect. Trump has taken what should be the honor of a lifetime – serving the country at the highest levels of the executive branch – and turned it into a reputational black hole.
This was, however, her choice:
After a career generally characterized by competence, Nielsen chose to reflect Trump’s priorities. Maybe she reasoned to herself that she was implementing the president’s agenda more humanely than others would have done. Aristotle once defined human beings as rational animals. They are, at least, rationalizing animals.
But the separation of crying migrant children from their parents as a deterrent, and the housing of children in prisonlike conditions, will be some of the most enduring political images of the Trump era. It says something about Nielsen that she took part in such practices. It says something about Trump that such actions were apparently too moderate and restrained for his taste.
Of course there’s more to this story, and CNN’s Jake Tapper taps his sources and comes up with this:
Two Thursdays ago, in a meeting at the Oval Office with top officials – including Nielsen, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, top aides Jared Kushner, Mercedes Schlapp and Dan Scavino, White House counsel Pat Cipollone and more – the President, according to one attendee, was “ranting and raving, saying border security was his issue.”
He was saying that the stuff was what actually defines him. Nothing else really does. This was who he was and is. This is all he’s got now, and no one will take that away from him:
Senior administration officials say that Trump then ordered Nielsen and Pompeo to shut down the port of El Paso the next day, Friday, March 22, at noon. The plan was that in subsequent days the Trump administration would shut down other ports.
Nielsen told Trump that would be a bad and even dangerous idea, and that the governor of Texas, Republican Greg Abbott, has been very supportive of the President.
She proposed an alternative plan that would slow down entries at legal ports. She argued that if you close all the ports of entry all you would be doing is ending legal trade and travel, but migrants will just go between ports.
According to two people in the room, the President said: “I don’t care.”
This was, after all, an existential threat to him – a threat to his reason for living, his “existence” – but this had to be worked out:
Acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney seemed to have been able to talk the President out of closing the port of El Paso. Trump, however, was insistent that his administration begin taking another action — denying asylum seekers entry. Nielsen tried to explain to the President that the asylum laws allow migrants from Central America to come to the US and gain entry. She talked to the White House counsel to see if there were any exceptions, but he told her that her reading of the law was correct.
Trump hated all this, and stewed about all this, and then took a trip west:
Last Friday, the President visited Calexico, California, where he said, “We’re full, our system’s full, our country’s full – can’t come in! Our country is full, what can you do? We can’t handle any more, our country is full. Can’t come in, I’m sorry. It’s very simple.”
Behind the scenes, two sources told CNN, the President told border agents to not let migrants in. Tell them we don’t have the capacity, he said. If judges give you trouble, say, “Sorry, judge, I can’t do it. We don’t have the room.”
After the President left the room, agents sought further advice from their leaders, who told them they were not giving them that direction and if they did what the President said they would take on personal liability. You have to follow the law, they were told.
They faced the same dilemma Kirstjen Nielsen faced. The president is asking you to break the law. You can choose him or the law. Think this through. That really is the issue now:
Senior administration officials also told CNN that in the last four months or so, the President has been pushing Nielsen to enforce a stricter and more widespread “zero tolerance” immigration policy – not just the original policy started by former Attorney General Jeff Sessions and undone by the President once it was criticized – that called for the prosecution of individuals crossing the border illegally between ports of entry, resulting in the separation of parents from children.
According to multiple sources, the President wanted families separated even if they came in at a legal port of entry and were legal asylum seekers. The President wanted families separated even if they were apprehended within the US. He thinks the separations work to deter migrants from coming.
Sources told CNN that Nielsen tried to explain they could not bring the policy back because of court challenges, and White House staffers tried to explain it would be an unmitigated PR disaster.
“He just wants to separate families,” said a senior administration official.
Of course he does. This is who he is – this is what defines him – but there is more to the world than just him:
Nielsen tried to present a path forward that was legal and in compliance with US laws but the President said to her, “This isn’t working.” And Nielsen did not disagree.
“At the end of the day,” a senior administration official said, “the President refuses to understand that the Department of Homeland Security is constrained by the laws.”
But that can be fixed. The Department of Homeland Security can be purged of those who believe that this department is constrained by the laws. Getting rid of Nielsen was just the start:
President Trump moved to clear out the senior ranks of the Department of Homeland Security on Monday, a day after forcing the resignation of its secretary, Kirstjen Nielsen, as he accelerated a purge of the nation’s immigration and security leadership.
The White House announced the departure of Randolph D. Alles, the director of the Secret Service, who had fallen out of favor with the president even before a security breach at his Mar-a-Lago club that the agency effectively blamed on Mr. Trump’s employees.
Government officials, who asked not to be identified discussing personnel changes before they were announced, said at least two to four more high-ranking figures affiliated with Ms. Nielsen were expected to leave soon, too, hollowing out the top echelon of the department managing border security, presidential safety, counterterrorism, natural disasters, customs and other matters.
Trump wants something different – something really harsh – and he told his man to make it so:
The shake-up, coming more than two years into Mr. Trump’s term, indicated that he is still searching for a team that will fulfill his desire for an even tougher approach to immigration. It also signaled the enduring influence of Stephen Miller, the president’s hardline senior adviser who has complained about recalcitrant homeland security officials.
He told Miller to take care of all this no matter what anyone thought about this:
Some of the president’s allies complained that he was going too far, taking out subordinates who actually share his goals on immigration at the prodding of White House aides hunting for scapegoats for the failure to control the border as he has promised to do.
Of course the failure to control the border as he has promised to do, as he had shouted he would do at countless rallies, might be his own failure, but since he cannot or will not fire himself, other heads will roll:
The latest shuffle came just a day after Mr. Trump pushed out Ms. Nielsen for not doing enough in his view to secure the border and three days after Ronald D. Vitiello, the acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, was told to step aside so the administration could go in a “tougher direction,” as Mr. Trump put it…
Officials said they expect to see the departures of L. Francis Cissna, the head of United States Citizenship and Immigration Services; Kathy Nuebel Kovarik, one of his top deputies; and John Mitnick, the department’s general counsel and a senior member of Ms. Nielsen’s leadership team. All of them were said to be viewed by Mr. Miller as obstacles to implementing the president’s policies.
Miller came up with the enemies list, Trump shrugged and gave the nod, and they’re gone, with this wrinkle:
The White House is also pressing for the resignation of Claire Grady, the acting deputy secretary, who under law would normally fill in for Ms. Nielsen. Mr. Trump has already announced that he will install Kevin K. McAleenan, the Customs and Border Protection commissioner, as Ms. Nielsen’s acting replacement, which he cannot do if Ms. Grady remains in place.
That’s a minor detail, because this was mostly about settling scores:
The latest moves appeared to be a housecleaning of officials associated with John F. Kelly, the president’s former chief of staff and his first homeland security secretary, who was pushed out at the end of last year after months of tension with Mr. Trump.
Mr. Alles, a retired Marine major general who served with Mr. Kelly in the military and goes by “Tex” was the first person from outside the Secret Service to head the agency in more than a century and some administration officials said he had a hard time fitting in…
Mr. Trump, who talks with members of his own Secret Service detail, had soured on Mr. Alles a while ago, convinced that as an outsider he was not popular among the agents, officials said. The president even made fun of the director’s looks, calling him Dumbo because of his ears.
The ears did it, and now the place has been hollowed out:
The latest departures, along with previous vacancies, will leave the Department of Homeland Security without a permanent secretary, deputy secretary, two undersecretaries, Secret Service director, Federal Emergency Management Agency director, ICE director, general counsel, citizenship and immigration services director, inspector general, chief financial officer, chief privacy officer and, once Mr. McAleenan moves, Customs and Border Protection commissioner.
That puts no one in charge of most everything there, and there will be no one to tell Trump that this or that is illegal or really dumb or quite repulsive. They’d have to tell Miller anyway, not Trump – Miller is his man on this. It’s a worry:
“The purge of senior leadership at the Department of Homeland Security is unprecedented and a threat to our national security,” said Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California.
Senator Ron Johnson, Republican of Wisconsin and chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, complained about “congressional dysfunction” in addressing border security, but added, “I am concerned with a growing leadership void within the department tasked with addressing some of the most significant problems facing the nation.”
Trust Miller. Trump does. Alex Shephard does not:
In a White House defined by dysfunction and turnover – the departments of justice, defense, and veterans affairs are all led by acting directors – Miller is the thriving cockroach. It’s no secret why: He has shown an unwavering commitment to Trump’s toxic immigration agenda, perhaps even more so than the president himself. Miller’s expanding influence and seemingly permanent tenure suggest that Trump’s immigration policies will become even more radical than those he implemented during his first two years in office.
Shephard calls this the Miller Presidency:
Prematurely balding, with a somewhat vampiric face, Miller is an experienced troll after Trump’s own heart. In high school, he would try to own his liberal classmates by railing against feminism and bilingualism, and in college he accused Maya Angelou of exhibiting “racial paranoia.”
That would be Santa Monica High School out here – he hated the multicultural California idea – and Duke University in the middle of North Carolina – he hated the multiracial New South too. He hates lots of things:
Over the past two years, he has been one of Trump’s most vociferous defenders, shouting at any TV host who dares to criticize the president… Just days after Trump’s inauguration, he and then-adviser Steve Bannon crafted an executive order that banned travel into the U.S. from seven Muslim-majority countries, resulting in massive protests across the country. Over the next two years, Miller would play a prominent role in the firing of FBI Director James Comey, Homeland Security’s child separation policy, and the GOP’s racist midterm message.
This is a matter of what seems to work best:
Miller has defended this approach on political grounds. “You have one party that’s in favor of open borders, and you have one party that wants to secure the border,” Miller told The New York Times. “And all day long the American people are going to side with the party that wants to secure the border. And not by a little bit.”
And then there were those midterm elections. He was wrong about all of this, but Donald Trump believes he was right, and that’s what matters here, right?
Max Boot extends that thought:
It is time to end the charade. Trump is agitated that Nielsen was not barbarous enough for his depraved tastes. She still retained some vestigial loyalty to the Constitution and the laws of the United States. Given that we are in a time of purported emergency, we can no longer afford such sentimental attachments. Rather than appoint another outsider who will never live down to his expectations, Trump should nominate as her successor the actual mastermind of the administration’s immigration policies: White House senior policy adviser Stephen Miller.
This is the 33-year-old wunderkind who orchestrated the Muslim travel ban, vast reductions in refugee admissions, efforts to build the wall, attempts to deport the “dreamers,” the deployment of troops to the southern border, and, of course, the family separations policy – along with the accompanying hysteria about crimes committed by undocumented immigrants. He even went so far as to deny that the Emma Lazarus poem inscribed on the Statue of Liberty – “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” – represents the spirit of America. Miller has further ambitions such as ending “birthright citizenship” and slashing legal immigration. He should assume formal, legal responsibility for this un-American approach.
So go for it:
Stop trying to put a civilized face on an uncivilized policy. Trump should have the courage of his racist convictions: nominate Miller as secretary of homeland security and let the puppet master come out from behind the curtain. Or is Trump afraid that even a Republican-controlled Senate wouldn’t confirm this nativist fanatic?
If an honest defense of the administration’s heartless and vindictive approach to immigration won’t survive the light of day, perhaps that should be an indication to the president that the real problem is not personnel but policy.
And the real problem is him, not anyone else. No purge will fix that. But an enema might help.