Sen. John Cornyn
Credit: Gage Skidmore

Nancy has already written two pieces today about President Trump’s purge at the Department of Homeland Security, but I also have a few things to say about this fiasco. For starters, the president botched the plan by announcing an illegal replacement for Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen. I could almost forgive Trump for this because he hit a snag that did not apply when he skirted the Senate confirmation process to appoint Mick Mulvaney to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and Matt Whitaker to head the Department of Justice.

In those cases, he relied on separate clauses in the Vacancies Reform Act (although, in the latter case, it also required a dubious legal opinion from the DOJ’s Office of Legal Counsel). These exemptions enabled him to make temporary appointments of someone other than the next in command. What he didn’t realize is that the law which created Department of Homeland Security specifically supersedes the Vacancies Reform Act and states unambiguously that the order of succession must be followed. In this case, since there is no confirmed Deputy Secretary, the position must go to the Undersecretary for Management.

Claire Grady, who is the acting deputy, was actually confirmed as the Undersecretary of Management, so Trump has no authority to place anyone else in the job. And that means that if he wants Customs and Border Patrol Director Kevin McAleenan to head the department, he is going to have to fire Undersecretary Grady and leave all three of the top jobs vacant.

Unfortunately for Grady, despite coming up in the ranks as a civil servant, she enjoys no protection precisely because she was confirmed in her position by the Senate and thereby became a political appointee. If the Trump administration is feeling generous, they will at least find her a decent paying job as compensation for their screwup.

Republican senators are looking at the spectacle of this uncoordinated purge and they are not impressed. Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas says “It’s a mess.” Committee on Homeland Security chairman Ron Johnson of Wisconsin says, “I am concerned with a growing leadership void.”

Finance Committee chairman Chuck Grassley of Iowa was already seething about the president’s comments on wind power, and now he’s found another war path. Specifically, he’s trying to protect Lee Francis Cissna, the director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, who is rumored to be next on Trump’s chopping block at DHS. Cissna worked on Grassley’s staff when he was chairing the Judiciary Committee, which explains why the senator is so incensed about this obscure position. He has been trying to intervene with Mulvaney, who has moved on from his stint at CFPB to serve as Trump’s chief of staff.

Grassley blames the purge on Stephen Miller.

The GOP senator was also critical of Stephen Miller, a senior White House adviser who has been one of the leading voices within the administration that has lobbied for the wholesale housecleaning at DHS.

“I think it would be hard for him to demonstrate he’s accomplished anything for the president,” Grassley said. When asked to elaborate, the senator chuckled and added: “It’s pretty hard to elaborate on it when there hasn’t been any accomplishments.”

In fact, Miller is catching a lot of flak for being the driving force behind Trump’s obsession with immigration and the current purge.

Moderate GOP Rep. Tom Reed of New York said he would prefer to focus on issues like infrastructure, drug pricing and health care in the 2020 election cycle, saying the issue of immigration is being kept alive “for political purposes.”

Reed also took a veiled shot at Miller: “One hard-liner is not going to dictate the outcome of this.”

As for Trump, most Republican lawmakers are keeping their criticism muted, but Senator John Thune let his displeasure slip when he observed, “He thinks it’s a winning issue. It works for him. It may not work for everybody else.”

There has been a concerted effort among Republicans in the Senate to stop the carnage, and no shortage of people who raced to the microphone to defend Kirstjen Nielsen from White House attacks.

“I thought that Nielsen was doing a fantastic job,” added Joni Ernst of Iowa, the No. 5 Senate GOP leader. “I would love to see some continuity. I think that’s important.”

…“Strikes me as just a frustration of not being able to solve a problem. Honestly, it wasn’t Secretary Nielsen’s fault. It wasn’t for lack of effort on her part. I don’t know if there’s anybody who’s going to be able to do more,” said Cornyn.

The bottom line is that there is a growing chasm between the White House and the congressional Republicans. They don’t think the president’s immigration freakout is good politics for them and they are in no mood to enable him by going through confirmation processes for the entire leadership of the Department of Homeland Security. All they see is impulsiveness, spite, radicalism, and incompetence.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at