In Barack Obama’s first term as president, Republicans issued a challenge to the Democratic White House: increasing border security would open the door to a bipartisan reform package. Obama accepted the offer at face value and significantly increased border security.
With this in mind, the Democratic president traveled to El Paso in May 2011 for a speech on immigration policy, and he explained at the time, “We have gone above and beyond what was requested by the very Republicans who said they supported broader reform as long as we got serious about enforcement. All the stuff they asked for, we’ve done.”
Obama added, however, that GOP officials were complaining anyway. “Maybe they’ll need a moat,” he said to laughter. “Maybe they want alligators in the moat. They’ll never be satisfied.”
Obama’s joke came to mind while reading a newly published report from the New York Times on Donald Trump’s zealotry on border policy.
Privately, the president had often talked about fortifying a border wall with a water-filled trench, stocked with snakes or alligators, prompting aides to seek a cost estimate. He wanted the wall electrified, with spikes on top that could pierce human flesh.
After publicly suggesting that soldiers shoot migrants if they threw rocks, the president backed off when his staff told him that was illegal. But later in a meeting, aides recalled, he suggested that they shoot migrants in the legs to slow them down. That’s not allowed either, they told him.
Among the things I found amazing about this was the idea of aides “seeking a cost estimate.” I’m trying to imagine assorted officials in the West Wing, making calls and poking around online, trying to figure out what it would cost to buy a bunch of snakes and alligators for a moat, all in the hopes of satisfying their strange boss.
But as amusing as this may seem, it’s the other part of the excerpt that’s far more serious: Trump encouraged those around him to do things the law would not allow them to do.
In fact, this new report from the New York Times featured a variety of examples of presidential indifference toward legal limits. In one instance, Trump reportedly told then-Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen to speed up the construction of border barriers. “[S]he said they needed permission from property owners,” the article noted. “Take the land, Mr. Trump would say, and let them sue us.”
It brought to mind recent remarks from former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who told an audience about the kind of instructions he’d receive from Trump. “So often, the president would say, ‘Here’s what I want to do and here’s how I want to do it,’” Tillerson explained. “And I would have to say to him, ‘Mr. President I understand what you want to do but you can’t do it that way. It violates the law.’”
Former Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report, of course, is also filled with examples of Trump directing people to take legally dubious actions.
As MSNBC’s Chris Hayes added last night, in response to the latest Times report, “The president is fundamentally and unalterably lawless.” If you’re one of those folks who chanted, “Rule of law” during Trump’s 2016 campaign rallies, I have some very bad news for you.
Postscript: Trump, for what it’s worth, has denied the accuracy of the latest reporting. Of course, Trump has also denied all sorts of other reports, many of which proved to be true.