Members Only | April 10, 2019 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

When a ‘Purge’ Isn’t a Purge

Permanent agency heads have power. Temporary ones don’t.

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The Washington press corps is describing the ouster of top officials at the Department of Homeland Security as a “purge.” Over the last few days, the president has demanded the resignations of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and a bunch of her lieutenants. While “purge” does capture Donald Trump’s desire to get rid of people who, in his words, are not “tough enough,” the word does more than that. “Purge” invokes images of Josef Stalin and other dictators. This isn’t anything like that.

Consider this anecdote by CNN.

The president was heading to a California border town last Friday when news came of a federal judge blocking his policy of forcing asylum seekers to remain in Mexico while their claims are being processed. Trump arrived in Calexico where he 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.’”

The people putting Donald Trump’s rhetoric into action have very good moral and legal reasons to ignore him.

You can imagine how baffled border agents were. Trump gave them an impossible choice: Obey me or obey the law. Leaders told border agents, according to CNN, that they “were not giving [border agents] that direction and if they did what the president said, they’d take on personal liability. You have to follow the law, they were told.”

Kirstjen Nielsen frustrated Trump because she obeyed federal law, wrote Joshua Green in Bloomberg Businessweek. The president wanted her to stop people before they crossed the border even if they sought political asylum. (Anyone can ask for asylum at any time in any place no matter how they entered the United States; federal law is very clear about that.) He also wanted her to renew and expand the administration’s prior and horrible policy of taking children away from parents to deter others from crossing, even if those parents were asking for asylum. In one way or another, Nielsen didn’t do that, because of the pesky law. She wasn’t “tough enough.” Trump “purged” her.

But, as you can see from the CNN report, a president can ask, but a president doesn’t necessarily receive. This is the case under normal circumstances. A president’s power over a bureaucracy is typically proportional to his ability to persuade that bureaucracy to do what he wants it to do. Add an element of “personal liability,” meaning criminal jeopardy, however, and you have a recipe for inaction. Even as the president fumes to TV cameras about “bad laws” and “obstructionist Democrats,” the people actually putting rhetoric into action have very good moral and legal reasons to ignore him.

This tells you Trump is strong as well as weak. He’s strong at using the media to communicate a fascist message to his base of supporters. The result is sky-high approval among self-identified Republicans. But that’s pretty much where his strength ends. If he wants to turn a fascist message into fascist action, Trump is going to need people. Getting public servants to buy what you’re selling is hard for any president. The challenge is greater for Trump, because he wants them to act illegally. He’ll no doubt get some on board. (ICE is a fascist agency, after all.) But most people are going to say what that border patrol leader said in the CNN report. They’re going to say, “Yeah, I know. I know what the president said. I understand what he told you to do. What I’m saying is I’m not saying that. What I am saying is you should obey the law.”

Turnover in this administration is unprecedented compared to the previous five, according to the Brookings Institution’s Kathryn Dunn Tenpas. “The Trump Cabinet has an acting chief of staff, acting Defense secretary, acting Interior secretary, acting director of the Office of Management and Budget, and now an acting secretary of Homeland Security,” she wrote. It’s worse in the White House, Dunn Tenpas said: “66 percent of President Trump’s ‘A-Team’ have departed or been promoted.”

Trump has said he likes “acting directors” because he doesn’t need approval from the Senate (that’s a debatable point, actually). But he doesn’t appear to understand that “acting” translates to “weak.” Permanent heads have power. Temporary heads don’t.

So after Trump replaces Kirstjen Nielsen, he’s not going to get the new DHS head to do more than she did, because the people who put policy into action, like the border agents Trump visited last week, won’t put themselves in “personal liability” for a department head who, as they know, is going to get “purged” anyway. All they have to do is wait for the president to lose patience and send the new guy’s head rolling.

Trump gets rid of competent officials but keeps incompetents. Stephen Miller, his advisor, has convinced him he doesn’t need Congress to restrict immigration. All he needs, according to Green, “is the determination of the DHS secretary to simply get it done.” Well, no. That’s not going to work, and perhaps the president finally understands. Since Sunday, he’s been railing against federal judges, “the obstructionist Democrat Congress,” and “the worst laws of any country anywhere in the world.” Those laws, in his view, are preventing him from “getting tough on security.” That’s one way of putting it. Another is that federal immigration law is preventing this president from turning the United States government into a criminal enterprise.

—John Stoehr

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John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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