In the memoir Decision Points, President George W. Bush looked back ruefully on one of his greatest mistakes. No, it wasn’t the war in Iraq. It was his failure to invoke the Insurrection Act and send active military troops into New Orleans during the 2005 Hurricane Katrina disaster.
In retrospect, the troops were needed. Under the Constitution, which offers a “guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government,” most power of public safety lies with governors, mayors, and other local authorities, and presidents do not lightly deploy armed officers on domestic soil. But New Orleans—whose infrastructure was inundated and whose government lacked the wherewithal to save lives in immediate jeopardy—was a perfect example of when the federal government should assert its authority. Instead, Bush and Louisiana’s Democratic governor had disagreed over the intricacies of deploying military forces, slowing the federal response.
In the past week, President Donald Trump has made Bush’s reluctance to overstep his own authority during Katrina seem quaint. Seemingly desperate to goad Democrats into a fight over law and order, the White House has deployed federal law-enforcement agents from the Department of Homeland Security to Portland, Oregon, ostensibly to protect statues on federal property from vandals. Agents from Customs and Border Protection and other branches of DHS are wearing military fatigues, snatching demonstrators from the streets, and even attacking protesters, who by all accounts are peaceful. The Constitution did not contemplate the mobilization of federal assets to fight a war on graffiti. Never having requested the president’s help, local and state politicians in Portland are outraged. Yesterday afternoon, Trump announced an expansion of the program to a number of other cities to “help drive down violent crime.”
These events offer a reminder of how much discretionary power every American president exercises—and why voters shouldn’t give the job to someone whose instincts are fundamentally authoritarian.
Of the many Americans who are rightly appalled at what has happened in Portland, some are directing their frustrations at the federal government’s organizational chart. Much as Trump’s anti-immigrant policies have fueled the movement to abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement, another branch of DHS, the involvement of Homeland Security agents in Portland have renewed calls to abolish the whole department. The hashtag #abolishDHS is trending. The historian and journalist David M. Perry argues for dismantling DHS as a way to “tyranny-proof” the White House. Those who opposed DHS from the start are saying “I told you so.” The argument could easily move off of Twitter and into the mainstream. Eventually, “Abolish ICE” became orthodoxy among progressives—to the point that, during presidential debates last year, a number of Democratic candidates took the dubious and politically self-destructive position of calling for the decriminalization of unlawful border crossings.
The only thing that needs to be abolished is the Trump administration. When the president is bent on using executive power for purely political ends, the specifics of the executive-branch organizational chart do not matter.
I worked as an assistant secretary at DHS under President Barack Obama, and I’ve seen some of the department’s flaws more closely than many of its critics have. It was formed to unify a large and dispersed civil-defense apparatus that had been tested on 9/11 and deemed to have flunked. The new department’s mission was never clearly spelled out. Its name is vaguely propagandistic, to say the least. The Bush administration and congressional Republicans could have just called it the “Department of Domestic Preparedness” or even “Civil Defense”; both phrases were in the policy lingo long before 9/11.
From its creation until 2005, the focus of DHS was counterterrorism; after Hurricane Katrina, the department shifted to an “all-hazards” approach that included terrorism as well as climate disasters, cybersecurity, and pandemics. More changes came under the Obama administration, which ended immigration programs that were at odds with local sentiment and installed leaders at CBP and ICE who were competent and sensible and not aspiring totalitarians.
When the department and its component agencies are working, Americans don’t hear about them: People get on planes, come through borders, receive disaster-relief funds, become U.S. citizens without much fanfare. At DHS’s best, it ensures the secure flow of people, goods, and ideas to and from the United States. But one of its primary functions—making decisions about who can enter the country and enforcing laws that keep some people out—is difficult and potentially heartbreaking under any president. Some criticism of the department is primarily a condemnation of the difficult jobs that it was created to perform.
Before 2002, most of Homeland Security’s functions, such as border enforcement, emergency management, and the protection of federal personnel and assets and essential infrastructure, were already happening somewhere in the federal government. If the agency were abolished tomorrow, these would still need to be performed by someone. What the agency is called matters less than who is in charge of making the relevant policies.
Now overseeing DHS is Acting Secretary Chad Wolf—a former lobbyist whose Twitter picture shows him unshaven and in aviator sunglasses. The department’s escapades in Portland call to mind boys playing soldiers; Wolf, the would-be general, boasted on Fox News that DHS “will prevail” and unironically vowed to “never surrender.” Before 9/11, some of Homeland Security’s most controversial functions, such as immigration enforcement and border control, lay with the Department of Justice. Would Attorney General William Barr, who has enabled Trump’s abuses of office at every turn, provide better leadership than Wolf—or would both just give their boss what he wants?
DHS is broken, as are the departments of Justice, State, and Education, and all of the other federal offices now subservient to Trump’s whims. But no one speaks of abolishing those agencies whose functions—under a president fundamentally committed to democracy and the rule of law—are viewed as integral to American society and its safety and prosperity.
Trump’s expansion of his supposed anti-crime program shows his motives are overtly political. “Oakland is a mess,” he sputtered Monday, after rattling off a list of other cities where he might send federal agents to quell supposed disorder. “We’re not going to let this happen in our country. All run by liberal Democrats.”
If progressives respond by demanding the abolition of Homeland Security, much as many demanded an end to ICE, they will give Trump the fight he wants. To blame the bureaucracy is to lose sight of the real problem: Trump himself. His abuse of DHS authority is consistent with everything else about his presidency. He uses power where it’s not needed or legitimate and neglects it when federal authority is absolutely essential to saving lives. The U.S. needs a federal government strong enough to protect the public against real dangers. It also needs a chief executive who will use all of the government’s might against a deadly pandemic—instead of sending agents out to snatch protesters off of Portland streets.