The government shutdown was fun; so was the national emergency declaration many Republicans believed was unconstitutional. Then there was the willingness to eviscerate Obamacare in court without a replacement, followed by a promise of a replacement, which was then delayed 18 months. That was followed by a threat to batter the economy by closing the southern border, which was delayed another 12 months. Now it’s time to dismember the Homeland Security Department and possibly return to taking children from their parents at the border.
For Republicans trying to protect an imperiled Senate majority next year — and GOP House members hoping to return to the majority — the ride on the Trump train these last few months requires a daily dose of Dramamine. As Trump swerves from one presidentially produced crisis to the next, at an accelerating pace, he is inviting more political peril by the hour.
What could have been a quieter week — with Trump having climbed down from both his threat to seal the border and his promise of a new and perfect health care program — instead started with the firing of the secretary of Homeland Security, and additional revelations that the head of the Secret Service was fired weeks ago and that immigration “adviser” Stephen Miller had launched a “purge” of officials within DHS whom he deemed weak on immigration.
The Concerned Caucus spoke out, which is all Republicans ever do when Trump goes off the rails, though sometimes they add to their “concern” that they understand the president’s “frustration,” even though they now know the president is punishing officials who won’t defy the law to do as he wishes. Sen. Ron Johnson, chairman of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security, issued a statement about his concerns over the new void of leadership at DHS, which of course in addition to border security is tasked with the nation’s counterterrorism and cybersecurity operations, among other critical missions. Sen. Chuck Grassley was also concerned, and wanted to make clear to the president that the able employees at the agency Trump seeks to dump are actually trying to help him with his number one policy goal, though the chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee did muster the guts to take a pot shot at Miller. Behind the scenes, however, it’s panic time.
The Washington Post reported Tuesday that “Trump’s increasingly erratic behavior over the past 12 days — since he first threatened to seal the border in a series of tweets March 29 — has alarmed top Republicans, business leaders and foreign leaders who fear his emotional response might exacerbate the problems at the border, harm the U.S. economy and degrade national security.” The story also recounted that Kirstjen Nielsen was upset that sometimes she was not informed on decisions affecting DHS and that Miller influenced Trump on withdrawing aid to the Central American Northern Triangle nations – aid that is invested to curb illegal immigration. The president’s sudden decision to pull the nomination of Ronald Vitiello to lead ICE, also made without consulting Nielsen, was so unexpected that White House officials first told Senate staff it was a mistake, the Post reported. Sen. John Cornyn, up for reelection next year, is quoted in the Post account sounding like someone escaping the Concerned Caucus and saying: “We think a lot of the drama that has occurred … is making America look very bad to the rest of the world.”
Because the president wanted Kevin McAleenan to replace Nielsen as DHS secretary, acting Deputy Secretary Claire Grady had to be fired, and others are in Trump and Miller’s crosshairs. Despite pressure from Grassley to keep L. Francis Cissna as head of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, along with similar pleas from border hardliners like Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies, Cissna’s hold on his job remains precarious as he reportedly refused to alter asylum rules — at Miller’s request — without involving Congress.
Trump’s plan to renew family separation, which created one of the worst firestorms of his presidency last summer, was the final disagreement that prompted him to fire Nielsen. She objected, citing court challenges, but CNN reported the president wants to separate them even if they are asylum seekers or arrive at a legal port of entry because he believes separation is an effective deterrent.
The Republican outcry, in private of course, led Trump to retreat again, so on Tuesday morning he said of family separation, “We’re not looking to do that” and, throwing a few falsehoods around, tried once again to blame the Obama administration for a policy he claims he stopped. To revisit: The Trump administration’s zero tolerance policy commenced in April of 2018 as a deterrent, making illegal entry itself a misdemeanor that required children to be taken from parents. Obama’s policy removed only the children from parents deemed criminal or a threat or suspected of not being the actual parent.
It’s not the first time President Trump has lied about it, and he gave himself away by concluding the flow will increase without such a deterrent, lamenting, “Once you don’t have it, that’s why you see many more people coming. They’re coming like it’s a picnic because ‘Let’s go to Disneyland.’ “
What’s likely is that Trump will return at some point to the idea of family separation, just as he is likely to again threaten to close the border. It turns out he did indeed attempt to shut the border several weeks ago, on March 22, but was talked out of it by acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, who normally prefers to fuel more chaos with his let-Trump-be-Trump style of management in the West Wing. When he wasn’t able to shut the border that week, Trump then insisted on curbing the granting of asylum. In these past weeks he has also — simultaneously — told border agents to ignore the orders of immigrations judges; said, “We have to get rid of the judges”; declared, “Our country is full — can’t come in!”; and on Wednesday said he was “going to have to call up more military,” even though they “can’t act like a military would act. Because if they got a little rough, everybody would go crazy.”
Meanwhile, in the midst of the immigration “emergency,” Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, has drafted plans to increase by up to 30,000 the number of H-2B visas — which the business community seeks to fill temporary jobs in hotels, landscaping, and housekeeping — that Congress usually caps at 66,000. Trump teased it Wednesday, saying Kushner’s new plan was “very exciting, very important,” the same day Republican senators introduced legislation intended to thwart it. The RAISE Act, which Trump offered support for last year, would get rid of the visa lottery system, reduce the number of refugees offered permanent residency and cut legal immigration in half. Immigration restrictionists are running ads warning the president not to violate his campaign promises by increasing legal immigration.
Whatever happens at the border, Republicans can expect little resolution through legislation and a lot of reality TV. The daily border frenzy will be a staple of life, full of whiplash and unreasonable demands and reckless threats and yes, more panic, between now and Election Day next November. As Sen. John Thune told Politico: “He thinks it’s a winning issue. It works for him. It may not work for everybody else.”
A.B. Stoddard is associate editor of RealClearPolitics and a columnist.