Many of the tales of controversy to emerge from the Trump administration have been abstract, or complicated, or murky. Whenever anyone warns about destruction of “norms,” the conversation quickly becomes speculative—the harms are theoretical, vague, and in the future.
This makes new Washington Post reporting about President Donald Trump’s border wall especially valuable. The Post writes about how Trump has repeatedly pressured the Army Corps of Engineers and the Department of Homeland Security to award a contract for building a wall at the southern U.S. border to a North Dakota company headed by a leading Republican donor.
The story demonstrates the shortcomings of Trump’s attempt to bring private-sector techniques into government. It shows his tendency toward cronyism, his failures as a negotiator, and the ease with which a fairly primitive attention campaign can sway him. At heart, though, what it really exemplifies is Trump’s insistence on placing performative gestures over actual efficacy. And it is a concrete example—almost literally—of how the president’s violations of norms weaken the country and waste taxpayer money.
The Post reports:
In phone calls, White House meetings and conversations aboard Air Force One during the past several months, Trump has aggressively pushed Dickinson, N.D.-based Fisher Industries to Department of Homeland Security leaders and Lt. Gen. Todd Semonite, the commanding general of the Army Corps, according to the administration officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive internal discussions.
It may be a not-very-subtle sign of the frustration in the Army that the news leaked to the Post the same day that Semonite was called to the White House and Trump once again pressed him.*
Kirstjen Nielsen is the latest one out of the president’s spiraling cabinet who expressed his cruelty but wouldn’t go as far as he wanted.
There’s no reason to mourn Kirstjen Nielsen’s departure from the Department of Homeland Security. She was an immigration hard-liner working aggressively to carry out President Trump’s restrictionist agenda. She spearheaded efforts to crack down on migrants and asylum seekers. She requested military assistance at the border. She limited the number of people who can legally present for asylum at ports of entry. And she vastly increased the number of immigrants in detention.
She also carried out the president’s “zero tolerance” policy, resulting in the separation of thousands of families at our border with Mexico. Many parents are still searching for their children.
But there were limits to Nielsen’s embrace of Trump’s immigration policies. She pushed back on his demands to break the law to stop migrants from entering the country, according to The Times, and repeatedly reminded the president of “the limitations imposed on her department by federal laws, court settlements and international obligations.”
In almost any other administration, this would be unremarkable. It simply means Nielsen took her job and its legal obligations seriously — what we would expect from any civil servant. But Trump is unusual among modern presidents for his routine elevation of people who lack that basic sense of public ethics. If regular pressure to break the law was part of Nielsen’s decision to leave the administration, then her departure illustrates how any belief in the public good, no matter how slight, is incompatible with working for this president, even if you share his views.
This was evident from previous resignations and firings. Rex Tillerson, Trump’s first secretary of state, seemed to share the president’s skepticism of the department, carrying out an agenda meant to shrink its influence. But when Trump wanted to break the law — which, Tillerson said in an interview after leaving the administration, was “often” — Tillerson would push back, unwilling to completely subordinate himself to the president’s will. “I would have to say to him, ‘Mr. President, I understand what you want to do, but you can’t do it that way. It violates the law.’”
The president’s first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, faced similar pressures after he recused himself from any investigations related to the prospect of Russian interference with the 2016 presidential election. Sessions took that step after The Washington Post revealed his meetings with the Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, during the campaign — the kind of contact he had denied during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Trump was furious, which grew into rage after the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, appointed Robert Mueller special counsel. Trump reportedly berated Sessions in the Oval Office — which the attorney general called his “most humiliating experience in decades of public life” — and complained that the recusal was “unfair.”
Trump wanted Sessions to derail the Russia investigation and protect him from scrutiny, essentially making himself above the law. And he spent much of 2018 pressuring the attorney general to do just that, either attacking him in public or cajoling him in private. Sessions, who shared Trump’s politics but not his complete contempt for the rule of law, wouldn’t budge.
The overall pattern is clear. Trump wants to act with impunity, breaking the law if he needs or even just wants to. His appointees, who share his goals but not his methods, resist. He scolds and attacks them until they resign, replacing them with loyalists who may actually bend to his will.
Rex Tillerson was replaced by Mike Pompeo, then serving as director of the C.I.A. Unlike Tillerson, who attempted to contain Trump’s worst instincts, Pompeo has been willing to say or do nearly anything to stay in Trump’s favor. It’s why he would echo the president’s widely criticized flattery of Kim Jong-un and the North Korean government.
Trump says that Kevin McAleenan, until now the commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, will take over for Nielsen as acting secretary of Homeland Security. Like Nielsen, McAleenan backs the president’s harsh border policies. He defended border patrol agents after they used tear gas on hundreds of migrants, including women and children, who tried to enter the United States near Tijuana, Mexico. Some attorneys say it’s unclear if Trump can elevate McAleenan, since the laws regarding succession point to under secretary for management Claire Grady as next-in-line as acting director.
In his race to be Kansas’ next governor, Kris Kobach represents the ugliest part of today’s Republican Party. He also sounds a lot like the president... Kris Kobach, the state’s secretary of state — and quite possibly the most pernicious public official in America... This distinction is not conferred lightly. Mr. Kobach has labored for it long and hard, notably in the areas of voter suppression and nativism. He is best known for having been the vice chairman of President Trump’s ugly voter fraud commission, spawned in 2017 to root out the millions of illegal voters who Mr. Trump’s ego pathetically, and falsely, claimed had cost him the popular vote in 2016. The commission was dissolved this January, having failed to find any evidence of widespread fraud, but having succeeded in raising Mr. Kobach’s national profile and cementing his reputation as a master purveyor of Trumpism.Mr. Kobach on Wednesday declared victory at a noon news conference, acknowledging that only 191 votes separated him from Mr. Colyer and that the election result may change as provisional and other ballots are counted. Awkwardly, as the state’s top election official, Mr. Kobach would be the person charged with overseeing any recount of votes. Unless he recused himself, which he has said he would not.Mr. Kobach is running for governor on a promise to “Make Kansas Great Again.” (#MKGA!).. Starting with a failed run for Congress in 2004, Mr. Kobach has regularly sounded the alarm that illegal immigration and widespread voter fraud are destroying this nation. Indeed, he has suggested that fraud played a role in his congressional defeat.A former constitutional law professor with degrees from Yale, Harvard and Oxford, Mr. Kobach’s specialty is concocting creative legal arguments to achieve controversial political ends — such as, say, forcing Mexico to pay for a border wall. (His plan: use a provision in the Patriot Act to track and tax the remittances that undocumented immigrants send home to family members.)
He was the brains behind the self-deportation proposal for which Mitt Romney was widely mocked in his 2012 presidential run.
.. As an adviser to immigration hard-liners in Arizona — including the felonious-until-pardoned Sheriff Joe Arpaio — he helped write the state law that, among other measures, tasked the local police with verifying the citizenship of anyone they had “reasonable suspicion” to believe was undocumented.
.. ProPublica and The Kansas City Star recently detailed Mr. Kobach’s 13-year history of pitching his consulting services to small towns, helping them enact such ordinances. This has been a profitable gig for Mr. Kobach, but not so much for the towns in question, some of which wound up drowning in legal fees after trying to defend measures that ultimately proved unenforceable.
.. His crowning achievement as secretary of state was a law passed in 2011 requiring people to prove their citizenship before registering to vote. Or, rather, it was his crowning achievement until a federal judge this year struck down the law as unconstitutional.
.. he has a flair for the dramatic and isn’t overly concerned with facts.
.. His speeches contain plenty of red meat, such as comparing Planned Parenthood to the Third Reich’s Josef Mengele.
.. Until early 2017, Mr. Kobach spent several years hosting a local call-in show, on which he held forth on such terrors as the “illegal alien crime wave” that he warned was decimating America.
.. He also got a kick out of indulging the dark fantasies of listeners, such as the 2014 caller fearful that the immigration policies of then-President Barack Obama would lead to the “ethnic cleansing” of whites.
.. Then there was the 2015 caller anxious about whether Mr. Obama might one day decree that “any black person accused of a crime, charged with a crime, is not going to be prosecuted.”
“Well, it’s already happened more or less in the case of civil rights laws,” Mr. Kobach soothed. “So I guess it’s not a huge jump.”
.. in Mr. Kobach, Mr. Trump clearly sees a kindred spirit.
In her ruling, U.S. District Judge Julie Robinson in Kansas City, Kan., referred repeatedly to Kobach as acting “disingenuously.”
.. “The term ‘register’ is not ambiguous, nor should there have been any question that these voters were to be treated just like any other registered voter,” Robinson said in her order.
Instead of a fine in the contempt matter, Robinson ordered Kobach to pay attorneys fees for the plaintiffs in the case.
.. “The Court is troubled by Defendant’s failure to take responsibility for violating this Court’s orders, and for failing to ensure compliance over an issue that he explicitly represented to the Court had been accomplished,” Robinson wrote.
.. In 2016, Robinson ordered Kobach to fully register thousands of Kansas voters who had registered at the DMV but had failed to provide proof of citizenship, such as a birth certificate or passport, as required by a Kansas law that Kobach crafted.
Robinson had earlier scolded Kobach for initially informing the voters covered by her order that they were registered only for the 2016 election and for failing to ensure that they receive the same postcard notifications about their registration as other voters.
.. Robinson told Kobach during a 2016 telephone conference that she would hold him responsible for directing counties to send out these postcards. He promised to do his best and narrowly dodged a contempt hearing in 2016 because of this agreement.
.. Kobach has advised President Donald Trump on potential changes to federal voting laws. He also has the support of the president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., who campaigned for Kobach late last year…
Kobach was previously fined $1,000 by the court last year after Robinson had concluded he had tried to mislead the court about documents related to a 2016 meeting with Trump.
.. “Defendant has a history of noncompliance with the preliminary injunction order. He not only willfully failed to comply with the preliminary injunction for five months, but then only partially complied in October 2016 upon the threat of contempt,” Robinson wrote.
.. “I believe that Kobach did what he could do within the office,” Esau said. “I think the judge expected him to do things that were beyond what the office normally does.”