Writing for Politico, Georgetown Law professor Carrie Cordero and national security historian Garrett Graff argue that the Department of Homeland Security, as it exists today, does not have the institutional culture necessary to check President Donald Trump’s “worst impulses” and is “vulnerable to manipulation.”
“Unlike the DOJ and FBI, which have powerful and long-held traditions of independence from White House control, DHS, in some ways, was specifically designed to be responsive to political concerns,” they explain. “Whereas the Justice Department’s leader, the attorney general, is meant to be the executive branch’s final authority on the Constitution and the rule of law and is traditionally politically independent — adherence to the law is in the department’s genetic DNA — the DHS secretary is meant to respond to the president’s direction on national security priorities, a realm where the president is traditionally given far more leeway than in ‘rule of law’ issues.”
This is problematic, they write, because DHS has a sprawling mandate ranging from border security to airports to financial crime to drug interdiction. It’s also a massive department — the 45,000-strong force of Customs and Border Protection alone is “three times the number of armed law enforcement at the FBI and even more gun-carrying personnel than the Coast Guard, the nation’s smallest military branch.” (The Coast Guard itself is also part of DHS, as are the 20,000-strong agents of Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the nearly 5,000 of the Secret Service.)
Unlike FBI Director Christopher Wray, they note, “the two DHS secretaries under Donald Trump—specifically John Kelly and [Kirstjen] Nielsen—did not insulate their workforce from politicization,” using DHS officials in photo-ops. The unions representing CBP and ICE even endorsed Trump.
This is why, they note, Nielsen became the face of the president’s family separation policy — and why Trump’s newest effort to purge the agency and staff it with fresh loyalists, and even offer pardons to his acting officials if they break the law in service to him, has the potential to do so much harm.
“Until Congress gathers the political will to confront these presidential attempts to break the law, we must hope that the next round of DHS’s leadership is strong enough to resist his next ill-conceived order and focus on protecting the DHS workforce from further exploitation and enforcing the law justly,” they conclude. But they offer little reason to hope this will happen.