Goodbye, Kirstjen, Hello Whatever Comes Next

The big news over the weekend was Homeland Security secretary Kirstjen Nielsen becoming the latest sudden departure from the administration of President Donald Trump, and what comes next should be a big story in the coming days. Nielsen’s reportedly forced resignation shortly followed Trump’s withdrawal of Ronald Vitellio’s nomination as director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, with Trump saying he wanted to go “in a tougher direction,” and there’s no telling where that might lead.
Despite Trump’s very tough talk and very tough actions regarding illegal immigration, there’s lately been a significant uptick in asylum-seekers and other immigrants trying to cross America’s southern border, and Trump is clearly displeased. Both Nielsen and Vitellio were fully on board with family separations and a sea-to-shining-sea border wall and other controversial Trump policies, but Trump won office largely tough talk and promises of tough action along the border, so of course he wants to go in an even tougher direction. Short of shooting any asylum-seekers or other immigrants tying to cross the border on sight, however, even the cruelest toughness might not provide a solution.
In her reportedly forced yet very gracious resignation letter, Nielsen wrote that “I hope the next Secretary will have the support of Congress and the courts in fixing the laws which have impeded our ability to fully secure America’s border and which have contributed to discord in our nation’s discourse. Our country — and the men and women of DHS — deserve to have all the tools and resources they need to execute the mission entrusted to them.” Which strikes us as quite craftily worded, given the short notice.
Nielsen still endorses Trump’s legislative agenda even as she’s being defenestrated, but she slyly alludes to the fact that she’s on the way out because she felt constrained by the current laws of the land. Given that her up-to-the-legal-limits tough gal approach never fared well with either Congress or the courts or popular opinion, her hope that an even tougher successor is probably faint and at least partly facetious. Nielsen’s tough-yet-law-abiding tenure never got good press, and we noticed that the Cable New Network kept featuring the most unappealing photos of her on Sunday, even though she’s objectively rather attractive by cabinet secretary standards, and any successor Trump might choose won’t fare any better. Good luck getting the feisty Democratic majority in the House or the slight Republican Senate majority and its skittish border state members to go along in a tougher direction.
All of which is a shame, as far we’re concerned. There’s a strong case to be made for some of Trump’s immigration law reforms, although we’ll stop well short of that shooting-asylum-seekers-on-sight that he’s probably tempted to do and his die-hard fans would surely endorse, but they’re not likely to get done in the next two years. or probably a few more years after that. In the meantime the most sensible proposal seems to be the one by formerly-far-right-wing Texas Sen. Ted Cruz to fund enough extra immigration judges to handle the current backlog on the border according to American law and international treaty obligations.
On the whole, we’re going to miss Secretary Nielsen. Not only was she objectively rather attractive by cabinet secretary standards, she also struck as one of the few remaining grown-ups in the administration. She’s was the protege and hand-picked successor of Four Star Marine General John F, Kelly, who had taken a hard line at the DHS, and who was briefly the White House chief of staff who was expected to impose some order on the White House, and we expect that also had something to do with Trump’s dissatisfaction. Trump seems intent on being even tougher than the law allows, as usual, but we’ll see how that works out.


Arrivederci, Scaramucci

President Donald Trump started the work week on Monday with a “tweet” assuring the public “No WH chaos!,” but after that things got pretty chaotic around the White House. By lunch time the communications director was on his way out, after less than two weeks on the job and a full two weeks before he was to be officially installed, which was just the latest and surely not the last in a remarkable number of personnel changes for a still-young administration.
Anthony Scaramucci’s appointment had led to the resignations of the White House’s press secretary and chief of staff, both of whom preferred to quit rather than work with him, and his resignation set off lots of speculation about what comes next. His predecessor’s tenure had also been brief by historical standards, and his predecessor’s shorter yet, so at this point the office is starting to look like being a drummer for Spinal Tap, and so far we haven’t heard any names being floated for who’s next.
The chief of staff that Scaramucci scared away has already been replaced by former four-star Marine General John Kelly, who moves over from his post as Homeland Security secretary, so some people are speculating that the Attorney General that Trump has lately been trying to harangue into resignation will be moved over there, and that he will be replaced by someone free to fire the special counsel who was appointed to investigate Russia’s role in the past election after Trump fired the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
All of which sounds pretty chaotic to us, but still-new-on-the-job press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders assures us that “If you want to see chaos, come to my house with three pre-schoolers.” That’s not a very reassuring comparison to a White House, though, and we hope that none of Sanders’ pre-schoolers are as troublesome as that Scaramucci fellow.
“The Mooch” made a fortune on Wall Street, and although he was an outspoken critic of Trump until the future president wrapped up the Republican nomination, he was complimentary to an almost homo-erotic degree afterwards. He had no experience in politics or media, but Trump admires people who have made a fortune and likes over-the-top flattery, so Scaramucci arrived in the White House with a pair of blue aviator shades and a Trump-like tough-guy persona and plenty of hair gel and swagger. He also arrived with a $200 million dollar sale to a Chinese conglomerate of the SkyBridge Capital  firm that he has a 44 percent stake in still pending before a regulatory review board, conveniently comprised of Trump appointees. That was reportedly one of the main reasons the previous chief of staff was so adamantly opposed to bringing him on board, and the official reason Scaramucci wasn’t officially on the job for another two weeks of consideration of the deal, but Trump doesn’t seem to have any problem with that sort of thing.
Scaramucci’s tough-guy shtick probably would have carried through him such picky-picky ethical controversies, but he somehow managed to take it too far even by Trump standards. When Politico broke the story about his holdings in SkyBridge, Scaramucci immediately “tweeted” what sure seemed to be a threat to have the FBI investigate the chief of staff for leaking the story, only to have the reporter “tweet” back that her source was the public disclosure form he’d filled out for a time-holding job at the Export-Import Bank. After that a New Yorker reporter “tweeted” that Trump and Scaramucci had dined with radio host and Fox News personality Sean Hannity, which is a rather embarrassing but hardly as earth-shaking scoop, Scaramucci responded with a profanity-laden and downright-crazy rant that wound up a few minutes later at the web site of one of America’s most venerable magazines.
The rant was probably the most widely-read piece in the history of the New Yorker, far surpassing anything Dorothy Parker or James Thurber or John Updike ever wrote for the rag, and we have to admit it does make for damned interesting reading. Scaramucci once again alleged that the White House chief of staff was a a possible felon and very certain sort of “paranoid schizophrenic,” described the White House chief strategist performing an extremely difficult sex act upon himself, and threatened to either fire or kill countless other administration officials. That might not have bothered such a tough guy as Trump much, either, but in one of those ironic twists from Greek drama and the Trump administration the chief of staff that Scaramucci forced out was replaced by a former four-star Marine general who is famous for not suffering fools and idiots lightly.
This scaramouche’s exit from this commedia dell’arte was foretold in our posting of yesterday, but even with our powers of prophecy we didn’t see it coming quite so fast. Nor could our literary imaginations have ever imagined such a colorful character or such a cruel fate for him. Shortly after he signed on with the Trump administration his wife filed for divorce during her ninth month of pregnancy, reportedly in part because she can’t stand Trump, and we doubt she felt any differently when he wound up missing the birth of their child because he preferred to accompany Trump to a Boy Scout jamboree, where the president gave a speech that the Boy Scouts later apologized for. The president he showed such loyalty to accepted his resignation a few days later, the press secretary and chief of staff he forced out and all the administration officials he’d threatened to fire or kill were no doubt having a hearty laugh about it, and that genuinely tough new chief of staff might yet have something to say about that $90 million payday he was counting on.
The quick exit and the genuinely tough guy who did the bouncing are hopeful signs for the administration, at least, and we’re wishing Kelly the best. There are a still an awful lot of fools and idiots left that he’ll have to suffer, though, and it’s beyond even his formidable powers to get rid of all of them.

— Bud Norman

The Border Battle Begins

The Republicans showed some fight on the issue of illegal immigration Wednesday, with a majority of the House of Representatives voting to withhold funding for the Department of Homeland Security to enact President Barack Obama’s executive orders granting amnesty to an estimated 5 million illegal immigrants, and we were glad to see it. Their efforts might yet prove futile, given the longer terms and weaker wills in the Senate and the full fury of the open borders lobby and the way Obama usually gets away with these things, but we’re heartened by the feistiness.
House Speaker John Boehner, long derided by the more robustly conservative members of his party as too accommodating to the president, even delivered a full-throated denunciation of Obama’s extra-constitutional attempts to re-write immigration that the most rabid right-wing radio talker would be hard-pressed to top. The speech cited the 22 separate occasions when Obama clearly stated that he did not have the legal authority to issue the executive orders being contested, noting that Obama has “ignored the people, ignored the constitution, and even his own past statements.” Although 26 Republicans helped the Democrats defeat an amendment that would have blocked an executive order deferring deportations of illegal immigrants who arrived here as children, and another seven bolted on an amendment to delay “immigration priorities,” the watered-down version got unified party support. There won’t be such unity in the Senate, where several Republicans have a long history of sharing the party’s big business wing’s preference for cheaper labor, but the House vote represents an overwhelming consensus among the grassroots that could jam the congressional phone lines and mailboxes and thus force a majority to go along.
Everyone expects the bill will be further watered down in the Senate, though, and even the weakest brew is likely to result in a veto that even the most improbably unified Republican party does not have the votes to override. The Republicans could still prevail by withholding funding for the Department of Homeland Security, but that would severely test any politician’s feistiness. Already The New York Times is describing the House vote as “approving legislation that would revoke legal protections for millions of unauthorized immigrants, including children, and put them at risk of deportation,” and the National Journal was making much of those “moderates” and “centrists” among the Republicans who voted against the amendments and worrying that the majority Republican position “could imperil their re-elections in 2016.” The Times cannot explain how an executive order to negate existing law is a “legal protection” for “unauthorized immigrants,” nor can The National Journal explain why the terms “moderate” and “centrist” enjoy such a positive connotation as they intend, and they don’t want to mention those dissenting Republicans would only imperil their re-election chances because they Represent majority-Latino districts that are never supposed to vote for Republicans in the first place, but it’s an indication of how a shut-down of the Department of Homeland Security would play out in the press.
The Republicans will happily cough up some generous amount to fund all of the department’s vital anti-terrorism functions, just not the parts that would invite millions more illegal immigrants and perhaps a few terrorists to happily traipse across the southern border, and this should prove a politically advantageous position. The Third World’s unfettered access to the United States of America is not widely popular, even in those Latino-majority districts that have unaccountably elected Republican representatives, and revanchist groups such as La Raza and the owners of companies reliant on cheap unskilled labor do not constitute a majority of the voting public. That tale about racist Republicans picking on poor brown children will be oft-told, however, and the president does have a way of getting away with these things.
This will all take weeks or maybe months to sort out, and we’ll keep attuned to the latest developments. In the meantime, we’re hoping for more Republican feistiness.

— Bud Norman

Anniversaries and Anxiety

Today is September 11, a date filled with dread. No American can help looking back in horror at the terror attacks that occurred on this day in New York City and Washington, D.C., in 2001, or at an American consulate in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012, nor nervously looking ahead for what might happen today. That nagging worry has occurred on this date for the past 14 years, but seems especially hard to shake this year.
The Islamist bloodlust that caused the past terror attacks is as impassioned as ever, and those afflicted with this ancient hatred have lately been conquering a large portion of the Middle East with beheadings and crucifixions, waging war against Israel with rockets lobbed into random civilians, committing the usual atrocities against one another, and issuing threats of mass murder against the west generally the United States specifically. It was once easy enough to dismiss such threats as mere Islamist bluster, but not now. Among the terrorist army rampaging through Middle East are hundreds of people with western passports that will get less scrutiny than the randomly selected businessman or tourist standing behind him at the airport, our  porous border with Mexico can’t keep out an illiterate and impoverished Guatemalan teenager much less an educated and well-funded terrorist, two Americans have been beheaded and others are being held awaiting the same fate, and the president’s prime time explanation of his hastily formulated strategy for dealing with the main Islamist threat on Wednesday offered no reassurance that our government is up to the challenge.
We’re not the only ones with this sense of foreboding. The United Kingdom has elevated its level of alertness in response to what the Prime Minister calls the “greatest terrorist threat in history,” Australia is considering doing the same, and a threatened king in Saudi Arabia has warned of attacks in the United States within months. A senior official at the Department of Homeland Security has told congress of Islamist plots to infiltrate the southern border, and although the agency quickly denied anything was currently afoot the brass at the Fort Bliss Army base near El Paso has been ordered to implement increased security measures. Polling data show that the public at large is lately more worried about the threat of terrorism, too, and the president’s appearing on prime television to admit that al-Qaeda is not on the run and the tide of war is not receding and our enemies are not a junior varsity team suggest that he at long last has the same necessary worry something big might happen.
He’s probably not yet so worried that he’ll reconsider his ban on detaining terrorists at Guantanamo Bay or using the harsh-interrogations that have successfully thwarted past terrorist plots, or his supposedly more moral preference for drone strikes that incinerate the terrorists and anyone who happens to be in the vicinity, or his instruction to Israel that even existential wars must be fought with the utmost politeness. Wednesday’s speech alternated tough talk about a “core principle” of his administration that “If you threaten America you will find no safe haven” with reassurances to his dwindling base of hippie peaceniks about the many things that he won’t do to the fight the enemy.
The president has recently described the country as “pretty safe,” a rather modest boast that he was obliged to admit he could make only because of all the national security apparatus created by his hated predecessor, and we’d like to believe it. Something about September 11 makes it difficult, though, so we’ll say a prayer, keep our fingers crossed and the radio on, and hope to be less anxious on September 12.

— Bud Norman