It’s Miller time at the Department of Homeland Security. This ungainly government agency, which should never have been created, is now being purged of its top officials by President Donald Trump and his top aide Stephen Miller. But will the ouster of its leadership, including Kirstjen Nielsen, who was in over her head from day one, result in any significant improvements in border security? Or will it simply create even more chaos?
Trump had already withdrawn the nomination of Ronald Vitiello to head U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a move that took congressional Republicans by surprise. Trump said he wanted to move in a “tougher direction” without specifying what it was, though one obvious move would be to reinstate the separation of families at the border, a policy championed by former Attorney General Jeff Sessions. NBC News says that Trump has been pushing for several months to resume it. The problem with this gelid approach, among other things, is that a variety of polls indicate that it is extremely unpopular with the American public. In June 2018 Trump himself stated, “I didn’t like the sight or the feeling of families being separated.”
Still, Trump is trying to go on the offensive. Nielsen is being replaced by Kevin McAleenan as acting secretary. (“I like acting,” Trump has previously said.) He has axed the head of the Secret Service, Randolph “Tex” Alles—perhaps in retaliation for the agency’s uncovering and handling of an apparent Chinese spy, named Yujing Zhang, who sought to infiltrate Mar-a-Lago, though Trump apparently mocked Alles for his big ears by referring to him as Dumbo. She possessed a device to detect hidden cameras as well as computer malware. Others getting the heave-ho in coming days are said to include Department of Homeland Security General Counsel John Mitnick and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Director Lee Francis Cissna. Others may follow. In addition, Trump nixed a deal today that had allowed Major League Baseball to sign talented Cuban players. Now they have to defect if they want to play for an American team.
Trump has been vexed by the increasing number of asylum seekers at the southern border. He has indicated that he wants to eliminate the judges who hear their cases. Other reports indicate that he pressured Nielsen to try and scrap the right to asylum in toto. Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson indicated today that he is concerned that Trump’s moves in denuding Department of Homeland Security won’t help.
There can be no question but that Trump is trying for bold moves. He has recognized Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights. He targeted the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, deeming it a terrorist organization. He also clearly wants to make immigration front and center for his re-election campaign in 2020. He’s clearing the decks. But on this issue, much as with Obamacare, he may be steering into a political hurricane. He faces the paradox, as the Washington Post notes today, of running on a hot-button issue that he vowed to fix. So far, he hasn’t. Instead, it’s getting worse by the day.
Jacob Heilbrunn is editor of the National Interest.