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.
Collaborators sense the sinking ship.