U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen following the classified House members-only briefing on election security in the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC, May 22, 2018.
Shawn Thew/EPA

Trump pushed his DHS chief to take steps ‘that were clearly illegal’

A variety of factors likely contributed to Donald Trump forcing Kirstjen Nielsen from her post as Homeland Security secretary, but her acknowledgement of legal constraints clearly didn’t help. The New York Times noted this amazing behind-the-scenes anecdote in which the president urged the cabinet secretary to take actions she could not legally implement.

The president berated Ms. Nielsen regularly, calling her 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, like 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.

At face value, it’s obviously unsettling dynamic: an American president with authoritarian tendencies pushed a top official to implement illegal policies. Trump had a vision for the kind of border agenda he’d like to see implemented, and he grew “infuriated” when told that his administration had to act within the confines of the law.

In the Republican’s mind, legal limits are annoyances and impediments to “tough” policies that the amateur president prefers.

But just as important is the frequency with which we’re confronted with this dynamic. In December, for example, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson spoke at event in Houston and described 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.’”

Or put another way, we now know of more than one cabinet secretary from the Trump administration who was asked to pursue policies that conflict with American laws.

And they’re not alone. Remember this New York Times report from six months ago?

President Trump told the White House counsel in the spring that he wanted to order the Justice Department to prosecute two of his political adversaries: his 2016 challenger, Hillary Clinton, and the former F.B.I. director James B. Comey, according to two people familiar with the conversation.

The lawyer, Donald F. McGahn II, rebuffed the president, saying that he had no authority to order a prosecution. Mr. McGahn said that while he could request an investigation, that too could prompt accusations of abuse of power. To underscore his point, Mr. McGahn had White House lawyers write a memo for Mr. Trump warning that if he asked law enforcement to investigate his rivals, he could face a range of consequences, including possible impeachment.

The encounter was one of the most blatant examples yet of how Mr. Trump views the typically independent Justice Department as a tool to be wielded against his political enemies.

Circling back to our coverage from last year, I suspect much of this is an extension of presidential ignorance and indifference toward governance. Trump has never demonstrated any meaningful understanding – or even interest in – governmental institutions and constraints. He’s more accustomed to a private-sector process in which he barks orders from a lofty perch, at which point employees scramble to follow his instructions.

Trump, convinced he can and should govern like a business leader, has tried to do the same thing from the Oval Office, wholly unaware of the limits of his authority.

No wonder he was “infuriated” when told his ideas are at odds with the American system of government.

The Washington Post added this morning, “President Trump often demands legally dubious solutions to complex problems. When he’s denied, he blames others – including his own staff. That’s really the nub of why he’s pushing out Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen.”