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In the last few weeks, we’ve learned the following:
— Donald Trump would like to do away with immigration courts, which he finds inefficient in deporting asylum seekers. (Exact quote: “We have to do something about asylum. And to be honest with you, you have to get rid of judges.”)
— During a recent trip to the border, Trump told Border Patrol agents to ignore judges’ orders if they were inconvenient. (The agents’ superiors quickly told them that, yes, they had to follow the law.)
— Trump unloaded his secretary of Homeland Security, Kirstjen Nielsen, for being insufficiently “tough” on migrants, including refusing his demand for a blanket rejection of all asylum applications, which would have been illegal. Nielsen had unflinchingly enforced Trump’s zero-tolerance policy, which led to a humanitarian crisis of thousands of children being separated from their parents and some held in cages.
— Trump then hired Nielsen’s “acting” replacement, the head of Customs and Border Protection – another willing participant in the family-separation efforts – after assuring him that, should he break the law, Trump would pardon him. (Inducing a federal official to violate federal law could be construed as an impeachable offense.)
— During the shutdown, Trump’s White House considered dumping asylum seekers in so-called sanctuary cities as a form of political retribution against Democrats. Immigration and Customs Enforcement lawyers rejected the idea as inappropriate, and the White House told The Washington Post in a statement that “this was just a suggestion that was floated and rejected.” The White House statement was soon contradicted by the president’s Twitter account; on Friday, Trump tweeted that he was giving “very strong consideration” to the plan.
All of these stories share a common thread: frustration.
Trump is frustrated at his own fecklessness — at his inability to stop migrants from fleeing poverty and violence in Central America, at his failure to fulfill a campaign promise and build a wall, at the legal and institutional impediments that serve as a check on his power.
Trump is suffering the fate of conmen who believe their own bullshit. Or, at least, he’s run headlong into the limits of his own tough talk. If anything, his election-time rants about “caravans” of “invaders” last year, combined with his failure to stop people from coming, served as advertisements for those caravans; they’ve ramped up significantly in the first part of 2019.
More important, though, Trump has spent his entire term focused on a pointless solution to yesterday’s problem. A wall is designed to stop people from sneaking into the country to settle permanently. By and large, that’s not what’s happening. Rather, families are stepping foot onto American soil, seeking out border agents, and declaring asylum – their legal right. A wall won’t – can’t – stop them from doing that. Border resources have become overwhelmed because there’s a huge backlog in the immigration court system, which gums up the entire process of adjudicating asylum claims; there aren’t enough judges. There’s also a weeks-long backlog at some legal ports of entry, as the administration has been throttling the number of claims it will process at those entry points a day. The idea was to force asylum seekers to cross illegally, while the administration enforced a new policy that would prevent illegal border crossers from seeking asylum; a court struck that down in November.
Trump has also cut off aid to the three Central American countries — El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala — where most of the migrants are coming from, under the, well, interesting theory that making conditions there worse will prevent people from fleeing.
In short, Donald Trump has created a version of the immigration crisis his campaign invented, and he’s proven himself powerless to stop it. So he’s thrashing about, pushing the limits of the law, convinced that if only everyone got out of his way, he could fix everything.
And in that sense, those five stories share a common thread with these two, which also came to light last week:
— The Treasury Department has refused to release Trump’s tax returns to congressional Democrats, defying a federal law that requires it to do so. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin has said that complying with Democrats’ April 23 deadline would amount to “weaponizing” the IRS. On Sunday, the president’s press secretary said Congress was not “smart enough” to understand Trump’s taxes, which, well, isn’t exactly grounds for ignoring a legal request.
-— Trump’s hand-picked attorney general, William Barr, has not only so far refused to release either the report or the special counsel’s summaries of it, but he’s also now investigating the alleged motives of the investigators and accusing federal agents, without evidence, of “spying” on the Trump campaign – indulging the tinfoil-hat conspiracies of a president who has alleged that the investigation into his campaign was tantamount to treason.
Taken together, these stories should be sobering – additions to the ever-growing mountain of evidence that Trump views the rule of law as something that applies to other people, not to him.
It’s easy to get hyperbolic discussing Trump’s authoritarian inclinations. As much as he’s degraded American institutions and norms, they’ve not broken, just bent. And it’s important, too, to maintain perspective: Trump hasn’t (yet) started two decades-long wars and nearly tanked the global economy, as the last Republican president did.
The difference is that George W. Bush was surrounded by political actors who knew how the system worked and how to work the system — men like Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, who could effectively turn malignant philosophies into catastrophic policy. Trump is surrounded by the people who agree to work for him – that is, hacks and low-rent ideologues. Whatever his half-baked authoritarian impulses, they’ve had a hell of a time making them a reality.
In other words, Trump’s incompetence has been our saving grace. Let’s hope that continues.
(Jeffrey Billman is the editor of INDY Week, in Durham, North Carolina.)