WASHINGTON DC - MARCH 14: President Donald Trump arrives at the White House after traveling to Southern California to view border wall prototypes, and to St....
Eric Thayer-Pool/Getty Images

In Trump’s mind, following the law is sometimes optional

Updated

The Rachel Maddow Show, 4/8/19, 9:26 PM ET

Trump determined to take kids from immigrant families despite law

Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project, talks with Rachel Maddow about the effort to prevent Donald Trump from ignoring courts and re-implementing his deliberately cruel policy of taking children from immigrant families to
Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project, talks with Rachel Maddow about the effort to prevent Donald Trump from ignoring courts and re-implementing his deliberately cruel policy of taking children from immigrant families to
One of the sources of tension between Donald Trump and outgoing Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen was, oddly enough, her reluctance to ignore federal law. The president reportedly urged her, repeatedly, to implement immigration policies that were “clearly illegal,” and when Nielsen balked, Trump grew “infuriated.”

Other members of the Republican’s team have struggled with the same circumstances: the president has pressed high-ranking officials – including former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and former White House Counsel Don McGahn – to take steps that fall outside the law.

Making matters quite a bit worse, Trump has also told some people that following the law is optional. CNN had this striking report yesterday about the president’s trip last week to southern California.

Behind the scenes, two sources told CNN, the President told border agents to not let migrants in. Tell them we don’t have the capacity, he said. If judges give you trouble, say, “Sorry, judge, I can’t do it. We don’t have the room.”

After the President left the room, agents sought further advice from their leaders, who told them they were not giving them that direction and if they did what the President said they would take on personal liability. You have to follow the law, they were told. […]

“At the end of the day,” a senior administration official said, “the President refuses to understand that the Department of Homeland Security is constrained by the laws.”

It’s extraordinary that the sitting American president sees his own country’s laws as annoyances, but Trump has taken this one step further, suggesting to others that they should feel free to put aside legal constraints in pursuit of his agenda.

Indeed, we aren’t limited to behind-the-scenes accounts. At one point, during a roundtable discussion in California, the president told officials, in reference to asylum seekers, “You don’t have to take them in,” which, again, is at odds with our asylum laws.

This dynamic comes up more frequently than it should. In June 2017, for example, Trump met with a group of Native American tribal leaders and encouraged them to feel free to drill for oil in defiance of federal law. They were understandably confused about the presidential instructions.

Trump, however, was reportedly emphatic, telling one of the tribal leaders, “Chief, chief, what are they going to do? Once you get it out of the ground are they going to make you put it back in there? I mean, once it’s out of the ground it can’t go back in there. You’ve just got to do it. I’m telling you, chief, you’ve just got to do it.”

In this case, “it” referred to illegal drilling. Axios noted at the time that Trump “sees himself above the traditions, limits and laws of the presidency,” which helps explain why he was reportedly comfortable telling a group of White House visitors that they should feel free to commit crimes with his blessing.

If you voted for the president because you liked his rhetoric about “law and order,” I’m afraid I have some very bad news for you.

The Constitution’s Article II doesn’t go into a lot of detail when describing the duties of the president, but it does include a rather specific responsibility: a president, the Constitution mandates, “shall take care that the laws be faithfully executed.”

It’s a responsibility that Donald Trump cares far too little about.

There is a degree of irony to the political conditions. In 2014, then-Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) condemned Barack Obama for overseeing an “increasingly lawless presidency.” Two years later, then-New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) said Obama “has encouraged … lawlessness.”

We now know they had the right concern, but targeted the wrong president.