Jonah Goldberg: Kirstjen Nielsen wasn’t right for Trump’s ‘bad cop’ role
Summoned to the White House last Sunday, embattled and apparently overwhelmed secretary of the Department of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen arrived with a resignation letter in tow. “Despite our progress in reforming homeland security for a new age,” it read, “I have determined that it is the right time for me to step aside.” But President Trump was the faster draw, tweeting that she was out before she could post it.
Nielsen was in an impossible position. There are 22 agencies reporting into DHS, but her job performance was only ever going to be based on immigration. And the crisis at our southern border is the product of two competing narratives.
The president has tried to paint the surge in migrants from Central America as a hostile invasion. The Democrats insisted, at least until recently, that there was no immigration crisis. The truth is that there is a crisis — a refugee crisis.
It’s not exactly blindingly novel to point out that the president’s criteria for competence is unconventional. To be sure, he likes good numbers he can tout at rallies and in interviews With a rising number of migrants inundating the border, Nielsen failed to provide much on this count.
But her political predicament was larger than that. Trump also demands — and rewards — loyalty, particularly in the form of effusive praise on cable news. Nielsen tried on that score, but she was never particularly convincing.
There’s another measure of political value the president prizes in his lieutenants and surrogates: He likes a good foil. In foreign policy, for instance, Trump has played the disruptor, questioning NATO, blowing up trade deals. Meanwhile his foreign policy and defense team played a reassuring role, pushing the broom behind the bull.
In domestic politics, however, Trump loves controversy but struggles with confrontation. (That’s why he so often fires people over Twitter from a distance.)
Trump enjoys it when others play the heavy for him so he can claim to be the nice guy. Right now it’s White House aide Stephen Miller who is the ideological enforcer on immigration.
Miller is a consistent immigration restrictionist, opposed to legal and illegal arrivals, and when Miller has his ear, so is the president. But in his last State of the Union address, Trump blurted out — off script — that he wanted more legal immigrants than ever. Tellingly, when the border crisis first flared up last year, the White House zigzagged on its response. Was separating families at the border an intentional policy meant to deter further immigration or a regrettable result of something Democrats had done? Trump has been all over the map on the question. But Miller said it was intentional, while Nielsen insisted that it was outrageously “offensive” to suggest the administration would ever use family separation in such a punitive fashion.
This schizophrenic messaging is a byproduct of Trump’s tendency to use reality show tropes as a lodestar.
Nielsen’s Achilles’ heel was that she was miscast for her role. She was mediocre at best at public displays of sycophancy, and she was even worse at playing the bad cop.
Trump has told aides he wants someone tougher on immigration policy. Whether he actually gets his bad cop remains to be seen. But odds are good that whoever it is will be better at playing one on TV.
Jonah Goldberg’s latest book is “Suicide of the West.”
Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief of The Dispatch and the host of The Remnant podcast. His Twitter handle is @JonahDispatch