After Sessions, Keep an Eye on the DHS Picks
In the storm over Donald Trump’s senior appointments, the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security has so far gone largely unnoticed.
But the stakes are enormously high in the DHS pick, which could be the second-most important domestic appointment Trump makes, after his choice of Jeff Sessions for attorney general.
We got a good reminder of that on Monday, when DHS hopeful and immigration hardliner Kris Kobach experienced a folder malfunction that revealed some of his proposals to the cameras. Among them appeared to be a plan to redefine the term “criminal alien” to include any immigrant who has been arrested, even if they were not convicted of a crime.
But Kobach looks like a moderate choice compared with two other names Team Trump has floated for DHS: Joe Arpaio and David Clarke, two local sheriffs who have built their reputations advocating a rough approach to justice.
“I don’t do anything halfway,” Arpaio told me over the phone last week. “That gets me in trouble sometimes, I take an extra step. And that’s what you need in Homeland Security — have some courage, take action and not be a bureaucrat.”
The stakes at DHS
DHS manages border security, deportations, and the deeply troubled immigration-detention system, but it is much more than just an immigration department. Its raison d'être is to prevent catastrophic terror attacks on the United States. DHS operates its own police force, Homeland Security Investigations, with sweeping powers to enforce federal law. The department also includes the Coast Guard, TSA, and FEMA.
In short, the Secretary of Homeland Security makes excruciating choices about how to balance risks and prioritize resources, all while sitting atop a vast police apparatus that interacts daily with millions of people.
“DHS, when you put its various components together, is the largest law enforcement agency in the country,” said Margo Schlanger, the former head of civil rights at the department. “I think it requires somebody who is calm and has really good judgment and doesn’t overreact when there’s a crisis.
The Wild West scenario
Some of the people Trump is reportedly considering for the DHS post have law-and-order or anti-immigrant records so aggressive they would make Jeff Sessions blush. Arpaio and Clarke seem like long shots, but given Trump’s penchant for surprises, they cannot be ruled out.
Arpaio, 84, has a long record of dehumanizing the inmates in the Phoenix-area jail system he runs, which he believes makes him “America’s toughest sheriff.” His games include making inmates wear pink underwear and marching them around in it in front of the media. He has bragged that the tent city where he houses inmates in broiling temperatures is a “concentration camp.” Lawsuits over alleged abuses committed by Arpaio’s deputies in his jails and on the street have cost Maricopa County taxpayers more than $140 million since he took office in 1993, according to the Arizona Republic. Ominously, his office has investigated and arrested critical journalists and political opponents.
Arpaio is most notorious, however, for his aggressive posture toward undocumented immigrants. He is facing a criminal contempt charge for allegedly ignoring court orders to abandon a program that saw deputies targeting Hispanics for arrest in an effort to round up people who were in the country without authorization.
After 24 years in office, Arpaio lost his bid for a seventh term on Nov. 8. When we spoke a week later, Arpaio said that nobody had contacted him about the DHS job, and that he wasn’t chasing it. But he also said that his decades of law-enforcement experience, including years in high-level posts with the Drug Enforcement Administration, made him a strong candidate.
When I asked whether his civil-liberties record was disqualifying, Arpaio balked. Though he said that he could not talk about the racial-profiling case given the pending litigation, Arpaio insisted: “We didn’t shoot anybody. We didn’t do anything. I’m not a big civil rights violator.”
When I mentioned court orders finding unconstitutional conditions at his jails, he told me, “We have no problems in the jail.”
Clarke has a persistent tendency to delegitimize protest among people he disagrees with while hinting that his supporters could justifiably resort to violence. He branded a protest against Donald Trump’s immigration stance a “totalitarian movement” and a “rebellion.” In terrifying language, he has referred to Black Lives Matter protesters as “black slime” that should be “eradicated.” And Clarke, who is African-American, has claimed that Black Lives Matter would “join forces with ISIS.”
Meanwhile, Clarke has echoed Trump’s talk of a corrupt system and tweeted that it was “pitchforks and torches time.” In his interview denouncing immigration protesters, Clarke said law-abiding citizens were under siege and added: “I’m not encouraging them to start the fight, but I’m one of those that comes from the school: If the fight is inevitable, hit first, and hit hard.” In a speech to a far-right organization of sheriffs, Clarke labeled the U.S. government “the common enemy.”
I was not able to reach Clarke, but he has released a statement saying talk of his appointment at DHS was sheer speculation.
The prospect of a Kobach pick is hardly more reassuring. He is an advocate of “self-deportation,” which amounts to making life so miserable for undocumented immigrants they decide to leave. In that spirit, Kobach was involved with drafting Arizona’s infamous “papers, please” law and similar legislation in Alabama. His primary national security experience, in the Bush White House, was leading an effort to register immigrants from a range of Muslim countries, which was discontinued in 2011. Now, it could come back.
Do you feel safe?
Another likely contender for DHS is Rudy Giuliani, who might wind up with the post as a consolation prize now that the attorney general job is taken and his bid for Secretary of State is looking shaky. Giuliani is a champion of aggressive policing tactics such as stop-and-frisk, an apologist for torture, and the winner of a “lifetime muzzle award” for his record on free speech.
Also reportedly under consideration is Rep. Michael McCaul. He is a staunch conservative who has accused Hillary Clinton of treason, but is also on record as denouncing Trump’s proposed ban on Muslims entering the country. Both he and Giuliani have significant federal experience.
Regardless of whom Trump appoints, things are likely to get ugly at DHS in the coming years. Still, the president-elect has a real choice here: a conservative who will do his bidding but recognize some need for restraint, or a radical who will blow up democratic norms on contact?
Depending on whom Trump picks, Americans — and the senators who will confirm the nominee —may have to ask themselves some tough questions:
Does this man have the judgment to ward off the real dangers we face?
Whom will this man see as a threat to the homeland?
And do I really feel safe?