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.
President Trump’s efforts to hide his conversations with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and new details about the F.B.I. inquiry into his ties to Moscow have intensified debate over his relationship with Russia, adding fuel to Democrats’ budding investigations of his presidency and potentially setting up a clash between the White House and Congress
.. Representative Adam B. Schiff of California, who now leads the Intelligence Committee as part of the new Democratic House majority, implored his Republican colleagues Sunday to support his effort to obtain notes or testimony from the interpreter in one of the private meetings between Mr. Trump and Mr. Putin.
“Will they join us now?” Mr. Schiff wrote on Twitter. “Shouldn’t we find out whether our president is really putting ‘America first?’”
The administration appears unlikely to acquiesce to such a demand without a fight.
Mr. Trump has repeatedly withheld details of his conversations with Mr. Putin, according to current and former American officials, a practice that has left officials blind to the dynamic between the two leaders and intensified questions within the administration over the president’s actions... On Sunday, congressional Democrats said the steps Mr. Trump took to keep his conversations secret brought forth uncomfortable questions about the relations between the two men and why the American president echoed some of Mr. Putin’s positions.
“Why is he so chummy with Vladimir Putin, this man who is a former K.G.B. agent, never been a friend to the United States, invaded our allies, threatens us around the world and tries his damnedest to undermine our elections?” Senator Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, said on ABC’s “This Week.” “Why is this President Trump’s best buddy? I don’t get it.”
Mr. Trump went so far as to take the notes from the interpreter who worked with him during a private meeting with Mr. Putin at the 2017 Group of 20 meeting in Hamburg, Germany... A former senior administration official said a number of top figures in the administration sought in the hours and days after the meeting to find out details of what Mr. Trump and Mr. Putin had discussed. But Mr. Trump waved off their queries, leaving the officials to rely solely on a brief readout that Rex W. Tillerson, the secretary of state at the time, had provided to the news media, according to the former official.
.. Several administration officials asked the interpreter what had been discussed. But the interpreter told them that the president had taken the notes after the meeting, and had instructed the translator not to discuss the meeting, the former official said...Mr. Trump’s failure to allow other officials into the room or share notes of the meeting has become something of a Rorschach test inside the government.
For opponents of the president, there are no innocent explanations for Mr. Trump’s actions, which are possible evidence that Mr. Trump has colluded with Russia, a question at the heart of the special counsel inquiry. For supporters, Mr. Trump’s actions are evidence that he must go to extreme lengths to prevent leaks and is a nontraditional politician pursuing new approaches to old problems.
Republicans defended Mr. Trump on Sunday. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told CBS’s “Face the Nation” that any notion the president was a threat to American security “is absolutely ludicrous.”
Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the House minority leader, defended Mr. Trump’s choice to talk privately with Mr. Putin or other leaders.
“I know what the president likes to do,” Mr. McCarthy said on “Face the Nation.” “He likes to create a personal relationship, build that relationship, even rebuild that relationship, like he does with other world leaders around.”.. Mr. Mueller asked Mr. Trump whether he had any discussions during the campaign about any meetings with Mr. Putin and whether he spoke to others about American sanctions against Russia... The revelation about the earlier F.B.I. counterintelligence investigation prompted Republicans to renew their criticism of the bureau.
Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican and fierce defender of Mr. Trump, told Fox News he was going to ask Christopher A. Wray, the F.B.I. director, if the bureau had begun a counterintelligence investigation of Mr. Trump.
Mr. Graham said there should be checks inside the bureau to prevent such an investigation.
“I find it astonishing, and to me, it tells me a lot about the people running the F.B.I.,” Mr. Graham said. “I don’t trust them as far as I throw them.”.. Without official detailed notes about Mr. Trump’s conversations, senior officials in the administration have had to rely on intelligence reports about what the Russians were saying to one another after the meeting. There are limits to what officials could glean from the intelligence, current and former officials said. And the Russians could hardly be considered reliable narrators, even with one another.
While that frustrated some in the government, the former senior administration official said he was not unsympathetic to Mr. Trump’s predicament. The official said the president feared that whatever he said to Mr. Putin would be twisted by critics.
But because access to meetings and transcripts was tightened after early leaks, some officials believed Mr. Trump’s decision to take the notes was too extreme and raised questions about what he was trying to keep private, the former official said.