It has become a ritual of the Trump years: Each time President Trump parts ways with one of his top advisers or associates, that person then embarks on an effort to expunge the deep moral stain left behind by his or her service to Trump’s depraved, corrupt, incompetent, and even sometimes criminal designs.
In the case of Kirstjen Nielsen, who has just been pushed out as homeland security secretary by Trump amid his rage over the spike in asylum-seeking families at the border, this process is proving more revealing — and unsettling — than usual.
This act of expungement typically requires one of several types of self-cleansing. The now-banished party reveals that the acts he or she did carry out were done with great, anguished reluctance, or that he or she stuck around to prevent worse from happening, or that Trump demanded numerous acts that he or she just could not bring herself to commit.
Nielsen’s version of this ritual runs through some of these steps. Yet in so doing, it hints at ways in which Trump could very well try to engage in conduct that is substantially more heinous and lawless.
Miller consolidates power, but Trump is ‘out of ideas’
Trump fired Nielsen because he wants a “tougher” approach to the migrant crisis than Nielsen has implemented.
Along those lines, Politico reports that Nielsen’s ouster reflects Trump immigration adviser Stephen Miller’s consolidation of power inside the administration. Miller is trying to bring in more immigration “hard-liners,” because he is “frustrated by the lack of headway” that the administration has made on immigration.
That “lack of headway" is that migrants keep coming to the border — the number could reach 1 million this year. Most of them are asylum-seeking families, and Trump is in a rage about them, leading him to lurch erratically from one posture to another.
Trump declared a national emergency to build his wall and has threatened to close the southern border (neither of which would actually solve the problem), a threat he has withdrawn and then reiterated in the space of days. He is cutting off aid to Northern Triangle countries (which would make the problem worse), and is demanding that Democrats give him changes to the law he wants (which they won’t do).
Now, as Politico reports, Miller is privately telling allies that the administration is at wits’ end:
Last week, as Trump threatened once again to shut down the border ... Miller held a conference call with immigration activists to explain the administration’s position and answer questions.
He has told allies that the administration is out of ideas about how to stem the migrant tide at the border, according to a source familiar with the conversations.
Out of ideas! So what now? New details emerging about the ouster of Nielsen provide a clue as to what Miller’s increasing control might mean in practice.
Trump wanted Nielsen to break the law
Among the most indelible moral stains that Nielsen will take into private life, of course, is her role in implementing Trump’s horrific 2018 policy of family separations. We are now learning, via leaks to the New York Times, that Nielsen “hesitated for weeks” before signing the memo authorizing the policy. But Trump castigated her mercilessly in private, leading her to capitulate.
Such leaks will not have the desired cleansing effect, however, because as the Times also reports, Nielsen became a “defender” of such policies. That said, there do appear to be things Trump demanded that she would not do:
The president called Ms. Nielsen at home early in the mornings to demand that she take action to stop migrants from entering the country, including doing things that were clearly illegal, such as blocking all migrants from seeking asylum. She repeatedly noted the limitations imposed on her department by federal laws, court settlements and international obligations.
Those responses only infuriated Mr. Trump further.
Trump repeatedly demanded that Nielsen break the law, by closing the border to asylum-seeking entirely.
Trump has a real agenda, and it’s extreme and crazy
It’s important to appreciate that this demand of Nielsen flows from what appears to be an actual aspiration on Trump’s part. In recent days, Trump has repeatedly said our country is “full,” which is another way of saying the same thing: If he had his way, we would not take in a single additional asylum seeker.
Indeed, Trump has linked this assertion directly to his threat to close the border, which seems to indicate that, when he threatens to do this, he thinks he’s threatening to end asylum-seeking entirely. This is utter lunacy — because of geographic realities, closing official ports of entry would not prevent people from setting foot on U.S. soil, after which they can exercise their legal right to apply for it.
But Trump actually does appear to want to end this as a right. It’s what he reportedly demanded that Nielsen do, and she refused.
Many other things he and Miller have done are all about progressing toward that goal in some way. In multiple ways, they’ve tried to restrict the ways people can apply or qualify for asylum. They’ve lowered the cap on refugees and used bureaucratic tactics to slash those numbers further.
Now they are pushing for changes to the law that would make it possible to detain asylum-seeking families — including children — for far longer, and to more easily deport Central American migrant children.
These would not address the terrible civil conditions in home countries that are largely causing the migrations in the first place. Trump has ended aid to those countries, while doing everything possible to either slam the door on asylum seekers entirely, or to deter them from fleeing those horrific conditions by threatening unspeakable cruelties here.
None of those things has worked. But Nielsen has been fired, because Trump wants something still “tougher” than all those things. Like what? Miller says the administration is out of ideas.
But one thing we can be reasonably certain of is that if Trump could get away with it, he’d do far worse things. As The Post reports, Nielsen actually held on to her job for this perverse reason:
Trump told aides last fall that he wanted to fire Nielsen, and he grew increasingly agitated as a large caravan of Central American migrants reached the U.S.-Mexico border near San Diego. She appeared to regain her footing after U.S. Border Patrol agents used tear gas to repel a large crowd attempting to break through a border fence — the kind of “tough” action Trump said he wanted in a DHS secretary.
Add to this the fact that Trump repeatedly instructed Nielsen to break the law, and you get an idea of what Trump might be capable of doing. What those things will look like we don’t know, but we may soon find out.
It’s fitting that this is happening right when an old quote from Trump — in which he called some migrants “animals” — is once again being debated. Reporters rushed forth to proclaim that Trump was only talking about MS-13 gang members, which isn’t even clear to begin with, and doesn’t seriously reckon with how determined Trump is to dehumanize asylum seekers, and the rhetorical tricks he employs to do so.
But the circumstances around Nielsen’s ouster should make it impossible for anyone to feign naivete about the depths of Trump’s depravity and inhumanity any longer.