Kirstjen Nielsen’s resignation as Secretary of Homeland Security seems to have been the tip of the xenophobic iceberg.
CNN on Monday afternoon published some more reporting on Donald Trump’s apparently ongoing rage spiral over migrants requesting asylum at America’s southern border. The story documents recent efforts by the president to try and stanch the flow by ordering members of his administration to commit outright illegal acts. Which is the sort of thing that used to get presidents impeached, back when people genuinely cared about this stuff.
First, according to CNN, Trump ordered Nielsen and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to entirely close the El Paso port of entry with under 24 hours’ notice. Doing so would not have in and of itself been illegal, although it would have caused incredible economic chaos.
But the move seems to have been driven by Trump’s insistence that border agents stop allowing migrants entry into the country. This would be illegal. As Nielsen explained to him, “asylum laws allow migrants from Central America to come to the US and gain entry.” Agents cannot legally tell migrants who show up at a port of entry and ask for asylum to turn around and walk back to Central America. They have to admit them while their asylum claims are processed by the legal system.
Trump has also been pushing Nielsen to reinstate the family separation policy and did not seem moved by her explanation that court challenges prevented her from doing so.
Trump was not done. Last Friday while visiting Calexico, California, Trump told a group of border patrol agents the same thing: don’t let migrants into the U.S. He also told them to ignore any judges who gave them any trouble over this policy.
After he left, the agents’ supervisors told them to ignore the president and reminded them that they are required to follow the law.
All of this comes at a time when Politico reports that Trump’s hardline anti-immigration advisor Stephen Miller has been pushing for what can only be described as a purge of the Department of Homeland Security. Miller has reportedly grown frustrated that federal agencies haven’t been able to make his hardline policies work completely, and so is trying to put in people he thinks will. That these agencies might be hindered by minor points such as the law does not seem to occur to Miller.
Miller’s belief that the president is above the law is nothing new. Two years ago, in defending the “Muslim ban” implemented in the administration’s first week in office, Miller told an interviewer that “the powers of the president to protect our country are very substantial and will not be questioned.”
Despite this declaration, courts very much can question the president’s powers here, and have done so repeatedly. Trump and Miller share a bully’s belief that they can run roughshod over those courts and ignore the laws. When they can’t, instead of adapting their policies or trying to engage the legislative branch to write new laws, they purge officials and order underlings to break the law along with them. How long our system can stand up under these stresses is still anyone’s guess.