When Donald Trump ousted Kirstjen Nielsen from her post as secretary of Homeland Security, it ended a fraught professional relationship. Indeed, it was somewhat surprising the two didn’t part ways sooner, though there was one thing that helped the former DHS chief hang on for a while.
The Washington Post reported this week that the president was prepared to fire Nielsen last fall, but she “appeared to regain her footing” after U.S. Border Patrol agents used tear gas against migrants at the border. It was, the article added, the sort of “tough” action Trump liked to see.
It’s against this backdrop that the president participated in a roundtable discussion yesterday in Texas, where he raised a provocative point about the kind of policies he’d like to see at the border.
“I’m going to have to call up more military. Our military, don’t forget, can’t act like a military would act – because if they got a little rough, everybody would go crazy. So our military can’t act like they would normally act or like, let’s say, another military from another country would act.”
Trump is describing a dynamic in which desperate families, many of whom have fled their homes in desperation, literally running from life-threatening violence, should be subjected to treatment from the U.S. military that’s “a little rough.”
The president has shown restraint in this area, not because he’s concerned with morality, because he doesn’t want to deal with the political blowback.
Indeed, listening to the clip, Trump’s frustrations are palpable. In his mind, the United States has the world’s mightiest fighting force, and he’s struggling to understand why he can’t order the armed forces to get “rough” – which is to say, violent – with desperate families seeking asylum.
Responding to the president’s comments, former Defense Secretary William Perry wrote, “The U.S. Armed Forces are not hired thugs to be used to ‘rough up’ non-violent civilians for political games, and expressing the desire to utilize them as such disrespects the dignity and honor of our men and women in uniform.”
Trump has never fully understood the military or the role of the commander in chief. He still doesn’t.