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.
The Trump administration is not prepared for a foreign policy crisis.
But the administration has not faced an actual national security crisis that tests it and us in a profound way. There is no shortage of possible candidates — a major terrorist attack; a debilitating cyberattack; an infectious disease outbreak; an incident with North Korea, Iran, China or Russia that escalates into a broader conflict. Yet no administration in modern memory has been less prepared to deal with a true crisis than this one.
I spent nearly 25 years in government, and almost as much time studying it. When it comes to the effective stewardship of our nation’s security — especially during crises — the most successful administrations had three things in common:
- process and
People with the experience, temperament and intellectual honesty to give a president good ideas and to dissuade him from pursuing bad ones. An effective process that brings key stakeholders together to question one another’s assumptions, stress test options and consider second-order effects. And all of this in the service of developing clear policies that provide marching orders to everyone in an administration, while putting allies at ease and adversaries on notice about our intentions.
The George H.W. Bush administration’s handling of the end of the Cold War powerfully illustrates these principles. Mr. Bush, Secretary of State James Baker, the national security adviser Brent Scowcroft and a remarkable team of senior officials proved to be the right people in the right place at the right time. Mr. Scowcroft’s interagency process became a model for every successive administration until this one. The policies they pursued were clear, sustained and comprehensive. The Obama administration’s successes in bringing Osama bin Laden to justice and handling the Ebola epidemic were the results of similar strengths.
When it comes to people, process and policy, Mr. Trump’s administration has gone from bad to disastrous.
For two years, cooler heads like Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and the national security adviser H.R. McMaster served as something of a check on Mr. Trump’s worst instincts: invade Venezuela, withdraw from NATO, evacuate every American from the Korean Peninsula.Now, their successors — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and John Bolton as national security adviser — are as likely to encourage Mr. Trump’s follies as to oppose them.
Equally important, the Partnership for Public Service has found that almost 40 percent of leadership positions requiring Senate confirmation remain unfilled across the administration — at last count 275 out of 705 jobs. About a third of the State Department’s 198 key posts are vacant. One-quarter of the administration’s departments are led by “acting” secretaries.
Under Mr. Bolton, the National Security Council headed by the president, the Principals’ Committee headed by Mr. Bolton and the Deputies Committee, which I once led and which coordinates policy deliberations, have gone into deep hibernation.
Some combination of these committees typically met multiple times a day. Now, it is reportedly once or twice a week at most. The result is greater control of the policy process for Mr. Bolton and fewer messy meetings in which someone might challenge his wisdom. Mr. Mattis, who once complained about death by meetings, protested to Mr. Bolton about the lack of them.
.. The absence of process has consequences. There were minimal efforts to prepare Mr. Trump for his summit with Kim Jong-un, the North Korean dictator, in which he unilaterally ended military exercises on the Korean Peninsula and mused about withdrawing all American forces. Nor was there a process to game out Mr. Trump’s recent decision to pull out of Syria — instead, the relevant committees scrambled after the fact to bring some order to Mr. Trump’s impulses. Even the welcome progress toward ending the 17-year war in Afghanistan has been hobbled by Mr. Trump’s arbitrary and then partly rescinded announcement that he was cutting forces in Afghanistan by half, thereby undercutting our leverage in negotiations with the Taliban.
As for policy, it’s the lifeblood of any administration. Secretaries, other senior officials, ambassadors and envoys all need to know what the policy is to explain it to others and bring predictability to our nation’s foreign engagements. Mr. Trump’s failure to develop policies — and his tendency to countermand them by tweet — have caused major confusion worldwide about where we stand on issue after issue. In a crisis, having clear policy principles is even more important. Take the meltdown in Venezuela. The administration deserves credit for leading the international isolation of the country’s illegitimate president, Nicolás Maduro. But there is no evidence it has a comprehensive strategy to advance a peaceful transition — or a Plan B if Mr. Maduro digs in or lashes out.
Axios reported that Mr. Trump likes to express his disdain for policy by citing the boxer Mike Tyson: Everybody has a plan until he gets punched in the mouth. It’s true that no policy fully survives first contact. But if you don’t spend time anticipating the shots you are likely to take, you wind up flailing about wildly. Which sounds a lot like Mr. Trump.
These past two years, most of our foreign policy setbacks have been modest, and mostly of Mr. Trump’s own making. These next two, we may not be so lucky.
Secretary of State reinforces alliance with kingdom while discussing Yemen, Khashoggi
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met Monday with Saudi Arabia’s leaders, bearing a message of support for a close Trump administration ally at a time when the relationship is under pressure at home and abroad.
Mr. Pompeo met separately with King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the royal court in the kingdom’s capital, telling reporters afterward that he raised at least two difficult issues—the war in Yemen and the 2018 killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul.
On those issues and on allegations of Saudi human-rights abuses, Mr. Pompeo stressed the friendly nature of ties between Washington and Riyadh.
“The Saudis are friends, and when friends have conversations, you tell them what your expectations are,” he said.
Mr. Pompeo’s stop in Riyadh came near the end of a multination Middle East trip and took place as U.S. lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are calling for a re-evaluation of the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia, including its support for the Saudi-led military coalition in Yemen.
But Mr. Pompeo, smiling in brief public appearances with the Saudi leaders and other officials, adhered closely to the administration’s stance regarding Saudi Arabia since the Oct. 2 killing of Mr. Khashoggi. He pressed for accountability, but avoided personally blaming Prince Mohammed, who U.S. intelligence officials have concluded likely gave the order for the killing.
Mr. Pompeo and other officials consistently have emphasized the enduring nature of the U.S.-Saudi relationship and its vital role in countering Iran, a main thrust of Mr. Pompeo’s trip, which has included stops in Jordan, Iraq, Egypt, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Oman.
In Saudi Arabia, Mr. Pompeo said he broached the issue of human rights, but didn’t specifically address allegations that a Saudi crackdown on dissent has included acts of torture against jailed women’s-rights activists, including lashings and electric shocks.
On Yemen, the U.S. mission to the kingdom said on Twitter that Mr. Pompeo and the crown prince discussed the conflict and “agreed on need for continued de-escalation and adherence to Sweden agreements, especially cease-fire and redeployment in #Hudaydah,” referring to the Red Sea port city that is the gateway for the vast majority of the country’s food and aid.
The administration has accelerated its efforts to secure a peace agreement in Yemen, for a conflict that has killed tens of thousand of people and caused a humanitarian crisis.
Saudi Arabia and its allies have been battling Iran-backed Houthi rebels, who Riyadh sees as proxies of their rival Iran, and they have used U.S.-made bombs and intelligence assistance in their bid to defeat the group.
“We discussed with Pompeo the joint effort in fighting Iran’s expansionist policies that harm regional and international security,” former Saudi foreign minister Adel Al Jubeir said, according to the Saudi state-owned Ekhbariya news channel.
The officials discussed the crises in Yemen and Syria, the situation in the Red Sea region, and efforts to fight terrorism and extremism, Mr. Jubeir said, according to the channel.
Mr. Pomeo also addressed a pair of Twitter messages sent Sunday by President Trump in which he vowed to devastate Turkey’s economy if it targets Kurdish populations in northern Syria as the U.S. withdraws its forces. Mr. Trump called for a 20-mile safe zone between the Turkish border and U.S.-allied fighters, and also called upon America’s Kurdish allies not to provoke Turkey.
“The president’s aim there, I think, is the one that we’ve been talking about for some time. Which is that we want to make sure that the folks who fought with us to take down the caliphate and ISIS have security, and also that terrorists acting out of Syria aren’t able to attack Turkey,” Mr. Pompeo said, referring to Islamic State by an acronym.
The exact method of achieving these “twin aims” has yet to be determined, the secretary said. “If we can get a space—call it a buffer zone; others might have a different name for it—if we can get the space and the security arrangements right, this will be a good thing for everyone in the region.”
Mr. Pompeo planned to return to the U.S. earlier than planned to attend a family funeral, the State Department said on Monday. After departing Saudi Arabia, the secretary was traveling to Oman for meetings with leaders there, but planned to forgo a scheduled stop in Kuwait.
The secretary’s swing through the Middle East was aimed at reassuring partners and promoting a new regional alliance. Mr. Pompeo arrived in Riyadh from Doha, where the U.S. and Qatar held their second strategic dialogue.
During his remarks in Doha, the secretary pledged to continue trying to broker an agreement between Qatar and the four states—Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt—that have isolated the country over allegations of support for terrorism.
The schism threatens to derail U.S. plans to form a Middle East Strategic Alliance envisioned as a counterpart to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Asked about his hosts’ reaction to his comments in Doha, Mr. Pompeo said the Saudis also hope to heal the rift with Qatar.
“We can certainly provide assistance and support, but at the end of the day those countries have to get it back together,” Mr. Pompeo said.
A few Republicans have managed—really—to work successfully with the president. Here’s what the new speaker could learn from them.
But there’s no formula for successfully negotiating with this mercurial, ad hoc chief executive. Pelosi’s first attempt to do so, an agreement in September 2017 to protect the Dreamers from deportation in exchange for border security funding, fell apart not long after it was announced.
Still, there’s no reason to think Pelosi, or anyone in the nation’s capital, can’t find a way to a win with Trump. Here’s what we’ve learned about the art of making a deal with Trump from the few successful people in Washington who have figured out how to get what they want out of the president.
Convince Him He’ll Be Loved
Trump may want nothing more than to be well-liked and appreciated. The bipartisan criminal justice reform bill seems to have been sold to him as an opportunity to do just that. Versions of the First Step Act, a major reform that liberalizes federal prison and sentencing laws, had floundered in Congress for years. The policy already had support from across the political spectrum—but it needed a Republican president who could provide political cover to bring enough members of the GOP on board.
Trump wasn’t an obvious champion for sentencing reform. He ran a campaign promising “law and order” and selected the tough-on-crime Jeff Sessions as attorney general. Sessions’ Justice Department had issued reports critical of the bill. The president has suggested that convicted drug dealers deserved the death penalty. To get his support, the criminal-justice reformers would need to conduct a conversion.
The evangelist was White House adviser Jared Kushner, who, all accounts say, worked hard to persuade his father-in-law. Kushner met with everyone from members of the Congressional Black Caucus to Koch-funded interest groups to the news media to bolster an already large coalition. It helped that Kushner was able to deliver plenty of groups and individuals on the right.
“I think the broad popularity of the policy was the gateway,” says one of the bill’s advocates, who watched the process at the White House up close. “The president was also given a booklet of dozens of conservative organizations and individuals making supportive statements on the bill to show grassroots political support. And then it took some convincing that law enforcement was on board.”
The last piece proved crucial, because there’s perhaps no interest group Trump cherishes more than law enforcement. The marquee names—the
- Fraternal Order of Police, the
- International Association of Chiefs of Police, the
- National District Attorneys Association—
were enough to get the president on board. With seemingly few people opposed (Tom Cotton, otherwise a devoted Trump ally, the most prominent) and even staunch critics in the media like Van Jones making the trek to kiss Trump’s ring at the White House, Kushner and his partners succeeded in selling Trump on the most important provision of the First Step Act: Mr. President, you will be loved for signing it.
It won’t be easy for Pelosi, but the Democratic speaker may be able to use similar tactics to goad Trump into supporting some bipartisan health-care initiatives. The administration has already begun proposing some form of federal intervention to lower prescription drug prices, while Democrats have long argued that Medicare should negotiate with Big Pharma on bringing down drug costs. Some kind of compromise bill could get the support of both Capitol Hill and the White House. Your older, Medicare-using base will love you for it, Pelosi might tell the president. That would get his attention.
Remind Him of His Campaign Promises
Earlier this month, Trump and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul were having one of their frequent conversations about the American military presence in both Syria and Afghanistan. Paul, a persistent, longtime critic of the continued deployment of troops in the Middle East, has found the strongest ally of his political career on the issue with Trump.
After their discussion, Paul sent the president some news articles supporting his view that the time was right to withdraw from Syria, says top Paul aide Doug Stafford, who says Trump sent back a note alerting him that he would “see some movement on this soon.” On December 19, Trump announced the forthcoming withdrawal of the roughly 2,000 U.S. troops fighting ISIS in Syria. The move was resisted by just about everyone around Trump, inside and outside the administration, including John Bolton, Jim Mattis and Lindsey Graham. All, except Paul.
“I think people mistake it like Rand is trying to get him to do what Rand wants. But this is what Donald Trump ran on,” says Stafford. “Rand sees his role more as keeping the president where he wants to be and where he said he would be against some people who are inside of the White House and other senators who are trying to push him off of his beliefs and his position.”