Under previous presidents, White House reporters had certain routines when it came to explaining big changes in Cabinet personnel: Press their sources; seek comments from press officials; check with key lawmakers. Repeat.
Under President Trump, all those tried-and-true methods still prevail, with an additional question: Which Fox News personality had this idea first?
In the case of Sunday’s big news — the resignation of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen — the answer to that question is Lou Dobbs, the Fox Business Network host who doubles as a toady for Trump and triples as one of the country’s hardest-line immigration advocates. “DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen is flailing and her department appears utterly paralyzed under ineffectual leadership,” riffed Dobbs on his March 29 program. As evidence, he cited a memo from Nielsen seeking DHS volunteers to handle certain tasks at the border. Another target of Dobbs’s was Kevin K. McAleenan, the commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection. “Tonight, we’re calling on the president to fire these incompetents and the leadership of the Department of Homeland Security and Customs Border Protection. They can’t act effectively. They can’t create, they can’t innovate. They only react and then only to call on Congress,” said Dobbs, whose wishes about McAleenan haven’t yet come true: He has replaced Nielsen in an acting capacity.
More from Dobbs: “Customs and Border Protection has become a little more than a welcome wagon service for the cartel, sex trafficking its deadly drug running and illegal immigrant smuggling across our southern border with Mexico while tens of thousands of Americans are dying. These border officials should hang their heads in shame and they should be fired for endangering the lives of the American people. Do what it takes — it’s that straightforward."
Forever a denizen of the gray zone where opinion mingles with fact, Dobbs managed to phrase the threat of border inaction this way: “We’re just going to consign tens of thousands, perhaps millions of Americans, to their deaths,” said Dobbs, essentially equating immigration with mass murder.
Given the alleged fecklessness of these officials, you might suppose that Dobbs would have held the president himself responsible for their work. But no: “The president isn’t the one playing the game — the DHS is,” said Dobbs.
That’s in character for Dobbs, a contemporary of Trump’s. The Fox Business personality is up there with Sean Hannity in terms of his loving deference to the president, who appreciates the sentiment:
Within the White House, the driving force of tough immigration policies is 33-year-old policy adviser Stephen Miller, who has been active in urging his peers to clamp down on the border. A “person close to Nielsen,” for instance, tells Politico that Miller is leading a shake-up within the administration to deliver on Trump’s campaign promise to get tough on the southern border.
Dobbs and others in the Fox family are happy to help. Consider the time in early 2018 when Trump wavered a bit on his immigration stance. In a famous, televised session with lawmakers, Trump said he’d show deference to Congress on immigration. “When this group comes back, hopefully, with an agreement, this group and others from the Senate, from the House, comes back with an agreement, I’m signing it. I mean, I will be signing it.”
Compromise? On immigration? Fox News host Tucker Carlson wasn’t allowing it: “President Trump, you’ll remember, ran for office promising to fix immigration, make good deals and, in general, do a better job than the corrupt, incompetent lawmakers, he said, were wrecking the country. And he was right, they were wrecking the country,” said Carlson. “And yet, today, in a remarkable twist, the president held a televised meeting with the very swamp creatures he once denounced. He told them he trusted them to craft immigration policy without his input.”
Immigration policymaking has long been a plaything for conservative media outlets, as journalist Jackie Calmes laid out in a 2015 paper for the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy. Right-wing commentator Laura Ingraham, noted Calmes, used her radio show to boost the candidacy of Dave Brat against House majority leader Eric Cantor. Notes Calmes: “While Republicans quibble over how much Ingraham actually had to do with the result — Cantor had, they agree, neglected his Richmond-area district as his national prominence grew — his defeat left many congressional incumbents further cowed by the power of conservative media, and hardened against immigration. ‘Immigration reform, any hope of it, just basically died,’ said a senior Senate aide.”
Months later, Carlson would attack immigration as making the country “dirtier” — a comment that sparked a wave of advertiser withdrawals from his program.
It was fine with Nielsen, who appeared last week on “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” perhaps in a bid to boost her stock in the eyes of Fox News’s No. 1 viewer. Maybe he was unimpressed. Though Nielsen called the situation at the southern border a “Cat 5 hurricane disaster,” she also talked about how she needed help. “But Congress needs to look at this as a hurricane, too, right? Where is the supplemental? Where are the additional authorities?” she said.
Bolding added to highlight a homeland security secretary who apparently placed a high value on following the law. Compare those values with those of Dobbs, who protested on his show: “We have got the secretary of DHS saying we need to go to Congress, we’ve got a CPB commissioner saying we’ve got to have congressional help. They’re damn fools! The Congress of the United States over successive congresses and successive presidents, Republican and Democrat, have created this mess. It’s time now to deal with it,” he said.
So, there you have Fox in the aggregate: One immigration hard-liner host hammering Trump for inviting a congressional compromise on immigration; another immigration hard-liner host slamming law-abiding appointees for lamenting the absence of congressional compromise on immigration. The result? An increasingly ungovernable country.