In recent weeks, the president has labored to reshape a federal government he feels is frustrating his agenda.
President Donald Trump has spent the last few weeks trying to bend to his will what are arguably three of the federal government’s least political institutions – the Department of Homeland Security, Federal Reserve and Department of Justice.
Frustrated by the organizations’ deliberate pace and the substance of their decision-making, Trump has tried to remake them in his own image. He’s purging staffers who disagreed with him, or whom he felt were insufficiently loyal at DHS, and he hopes to stock the Fed with vocal political allies who can do his bidding on monetary policy.
Trump cares little about how such moves will be perceived, former administration officials and Republicans close to the White House say. They argue he always prefers to push the boundaries of what is possible, legally and otherwise. And in year three of his presidency, he’s pushing harder than ever before.
On immigration, Trump has never grasped why the U.S. government could not simply hold undocumented immigrants indefinitely as they awaited immigration court proceedings, according to one person close to DHS. This so-called “catch and release” policy frustrated him, as if the government’s due process should not extend to everyone on U.S. soil. The president reportedly clashed with now-ousted DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen as he sought to bar all asylum seekers from entering the country, in violation of existing law.
Every president chafes at being stymied by Congress or the law, noted Timothy Naftali, a historian and former head of the Nixon Presidential Library. What makes Trump’s actions so unprecedented, he said, is the president’s reaction: Trump appears willing to steamroll through the constraints that American presidents have traditionally respected.
“Instead of learning to become presidential and accepting the structure of the American presidency, he is trying to reshape it,” Naftali said. “He has removed anyone, it appears, who stood up to him and said he cannot do this. This is a huge test of our institutions.”
Trump’s behavior has differed sharply from most presidents since his earliest days in office, when he dismissed the intelligence community’s warnings about Russian election meddling. Months later, he fired the director of the FBI, a drastic step that soon launched the special counsel probe that he regularly denounces as a “witch hunt.” And it’s not just Trump: Top officials routinely implicate thousands of federal workers in a “deep state” conspiracy meant to undermine his presidency.
Cabinet secretaries live in fear of provoking the president’s volatile temper, and often seek to curry favor with their boss in high-profile, televised moments when they know he’ll be watching closely. Attorney General William Barr was the latest top official to cater to this “audience of one,” endorsing the president’s long-held and little-supported view that the FBI was “spying” on the Trump campaign during a congressional hearing on Thursday.
On Friday, Trump showed his appreciation for the political cover from the country’s top law-enforcement official, saying he “absolutely” agreed with Barr — even as the attorney general’s aides were walking back his comments amid widespread criticism in Washington.
Congressional Democrats and former top administration officials immediately decried Barr’s “spying” remarks. On CNN, former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper called the comments “both stunning and scary … I was amazed at that and rather disappointed that the attorney general would say such a thing. The term ‘spying’ has all kinds of negative connotations and I have to believe he chose that term deliberately.”
But the week’s main challenge to government business as usual unfolded at DHS, where the White House purged four top officials in five days in a stunning decapitation of the agency’s leadership. More could be ousted soon.
Among the departures was Secret Service chief Randolph “Tex” Alles, whose sudden firing — unusual given the agency’s strictly apolitical tradition — did not seem to follow any specific scandal or clear instance of incompetence or malfeasance.
Senior administration officials say the leadership changes stemmed from frustration with the slow pace of rule-making on key immigration policies, but the White House’s irritation also came from an unwillingness on the part of those ousted to push the boundaries of the law and past court rulings.
Trump’s urge to sweep aside those he sees standing in his way will prove counterproductive, former officials predicted.
“The president and the people around him seem to not understand how large organizations work and that you need layers of management and lawyers to get things done,” said Scott Shuchart, a former senior adviser at DHS from 2010 to 2018. “They seem to think that by yelling at people in different ways, the actions of a quarter-million people who work at DHS will somehow change.”
One senior administration official argued that DHS should be able to churn out the president’s policy agenda at a far quicker pace. The official cited the Department of Justice as an example of agency that can draft a regulation in four to six weeks, whereas DHS can take a year to draft a new one, the official said.
But developing complex rules, changing the law and giving people time to comment on new policy does not follow any set time frame, and the government is required to follow certain steps.
“I’ve seen rules that have taken 10 years or more in the drafting stage,” said Susan Dudley, the former administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs under President George W. Bush.
Once a rule is written, the government must ask for comment and sort through the feedback. “You need to develop a record for the inevitable litigation,” Dudley added, especially on a contentious area like immigration where several of Trump’s policy moves have been blocked by the courts.
It isn’t just Trump’s lack of appreciation for the due process right of immigrants. He’s also publicly pondered why the U.S. can’t act tougher and rougher at the border. Riffing on immigration policy in Texas on Wednesday, he said: “Our military, don’t forget, can’t act like a military would act. Because if they got a little rough, everybody would go crazy.” He added: “They have all these horrible laws that the Democrats won’t change [and] they will not change them.”
On the Federal Reserve, the president has received blowback for tapping two overtly political figures: Stephen Moore, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation who once ran the conservative advocacy group Club for Growth and helped to author Trump’s tax plan and Herman Cain, a former pizza magnate who once ran for president. (Cain’s future, however, seems in doubt given the number of Republican senators who say they oppose his prospective nomination.)
Appointing seemingly political figures to the Fed is not wholly unprecedented, said David Wessel, the director of the Hutchins Center on Fiscal and Monetary Policy and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. President Ronald Reagan caused some controversy when he picked two Fed governors, Manley Johnson and Wayne Angell, whose policies did not match up with those of the then-chair, Paul Volcker. The banking system survived.
“Moore will change the tone of the Fed, but he will not change the policy,” Wessel said. “When it comes to the independence of the Fed, the capacity of the Federal Reserve, governors and bank presidents to tune out the president’s tweets and make the decisions is still intact.”
But if Moore’s ends up being confirmed, it will be for a 14-year term — a legacy, like judicial nominations, that will live well beyond Trump’s time in office.
And if Trump makes too many picks for the Fed who seem overly political and Wall Street loses its confidence in the institution because it no longer perceives it as independent, that would have dire effects on the global economy, undermining one of Trump’s most effective re-election messages in 2020.
Even some former administration officials who admire the president and his policies acknowledge that he does not pay attention to traditional rules of the government and often does not know the legal boundaries of his job since he’s only two years into his term.
They perceive that Trump’s impatience with the obstacles standing in his way has only increased in recent months as he’s grown more comfortable in the office.
“What we are seeing is the erosion of the presidency to where what is left is just the president,” said Cliff Sims, a former Trump official and author of a recent tell-all book about the White House.