The Trump White House thinks implementation of the travel ban is going well. (We hate to think what would qualify as a mess in its eyes.) In addition to foreign governments’ criticism, individual litigants, litigation from legal rights groups, outrage from Democrats, dismay from some Republicans and near-uniform objections from former national security officials, we now see the federal bureaucracy in open rebellion against the president.
State Department employees utilized the approved channel for protest:
State Department diplomats on Monday circulated various drafts of a memo objecting to President Trump’s executive order last week to suspend the nation’s refugee program and deny U.S. entry to citizens of seven predominantly Muslim countries.
The document is destined for what’s known as the department’s “Dissent Channel,” which was set up during the Vietnam War as a way for diplomats to signal directly to senior management their disagreement with foreign policy decisions. The communications are typically confidential, and may even be done anonymously if any of the signatories fear retaliation.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer, demonstrating just how ham-handed the Trump team can be, told them to “get with the program” or leave, which is, of course, contrary to entire spirit and purpose of the Dissent Channel. That said, many — the ones not furiously leaking to the media — may choose to do just that, leaving the department even more adrift than it was before. Rex W. Tillerson, soon to be confirmed as secretary of state, may arrive to a half-empty building.
Next, acting attorney general Sally Yates wrote a letter refusing to enforce the ban. The Post reported that she “ordered Justice Department lawyers not to defend challenges to President Trump’s immigration order temporarily banning entry into the United States for citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries and refugees from around the world, declaring in a memo Monday she is not convinced the order is lawful. Yates wrote that, as the leader of the Justice Department, she must ensure the department’s position is both ‘legally defensible’ and ‘consistent with this institution’s solemn obligation to always seek justice and stand for what is right.'”
She was promptly and predictably fired Monday evening. (A White House statement said she “betrayed” the Justice Department, a bizarre Trumpian accusation.) A replacement was named, but on this and other matters the administration may have to fire more lawyers before finding enough compliant lawyers to do its bidding. The quality of that work and the vigor with which they perform it may nevertheless be less than excellent, either intentionally (slow-walking litigation is easy, as Trump should know) or by virtue of the confusion that now rains down upon nearly every government department.
Meanwhile, before her firing, Yates got rave reviews from opponents of the ban. Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Immigrants’ Rights Project, told me,”This is a remarkable but welcome development and sends a powerful message that there’s something very wrong with a Muslim ban.” The question remains how many other Justice Department employees will leave or be canned. Yates was a symptom, not the totality, of the wave of hostility cresting in the executive branch.
Make no mistake: The administration’s position is precarious. The perception of utter chaos is forming, one that will make it near impossible to round up support in Congress and elsewhere for Trump’s policies. If Trump begins firing hordes of officials who man the desks and run the departments, he will accomplish very little, especially as Democrats drag out the confirmation process to delay seating replacements. As a practical matter, getting the work done and implementing new directives may be delayed or stalled altogether. Yates may have set off an unprecedented revolt in the Justice Department and elsewhere.
The irony here is great. Trump has declared war on democratic norms and tried to do an end-around the departments that possess the knowledge and expertise to execute policies. He set out to destroy the implicit understandings (e.g., spokesmen do not lie) and impair operation of our governing institutions (e.g., putting gag orders on departments). And now the institutions are fighting back. In truth, Trump needs a vast executive branch to carry out his directives; he’d better figure out how to work with his departments or find himself paralyzed and defeated at every turn. (As an aside, Republicans who once cajoled state officials to defy the Supreme Court decision on gay marriage now find themselves confronted with a slew of federal employees who could refuse to take direction.)
Trump better figure something out. This is not his own business where he can fire everyone. He has to cajole, convince and lead — talents he has never needed or demonstrated. He could very well spend the next four years firing people (he’s known for that) and achieving nothing.