In his White House drama, Trump’s favorite word is ‘acting’

Any random anti-immigration zealot who sets foot in the DHS cafeteria may be drafted for a top position

Who stands to lose the most now that almost all the Senate-confirmed officials at DHS are gone, including Kirstjen Nielsen? The Senate itself, Shapiro writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Who stands to lose the most now that almost all the Senate-confirmed officials at DHS are gone, including Kirstjen Nielsen? The Senate itself, Shapiro writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted April 11, 2019 at 5:02am

OPINION — Henry Ford, famous for both revolutionizing the auto industry and his anti-Semitism, declared more than a century ago, “History is more or less bunk.”

Donald Trump doesn’t even think history is that important. He remains a bit shaky about whether anything of significance ever occurred before the world was graced by his presence on June 14, 1946.

Trump, after all, is a president who believed that it was necessary to build up Abraham Lincoln because most people did not know that Honest Abe was a Republican.

And during a tour of Mount Vernon last year, according to Politico, Trump faulted George Washington for not branding his Virginia estate. As Trump explained to French President Emmanuel Macron, “You’ve got to put your name on stuff or no one remembers you.”

The Trump presidency will be remembered even if future generations somehow fail to rename the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial after him. And Democrats will be certain to remind the world that Trump was a Republican, aided and abetted by a slavishly loyal GOP, from Mitch McConnell on down.

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But there remains the beguiling illusion that everything in Washington can be reset once Trump leaves office. It would be as if the Oval Office were a crime scene that had been wiped cleaned as Trump exited the building.

History, alas, cannot be eradicated that easily. Beyond specific policies and the viciousness of his tweets, Trump has left his fingerprints on a bold assertion of presidential power that makes Richard Nixon look timid in comparison.

Nixon, after all, released all his tax returns from his presidency in 1973. At the time, Nixon offered a justification that seems particularly apt today: “The people have a right to know whether or not their president is a crook.”

In contrast, Trump has safeguarded his own tax returns with a zeal that national security officials wish that the president also applied to top-secret information. After all, as far as we know, Trump has never authorized Jared Kushner to look at his taxes. But the president did demand a permanent security clearance for his son-in-law.

During a Tuesday House hearing, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin revealed that his department has been coordinating with the White House on a strategy to resist congressional demands — based on a 1920s law — for Trump’s tax returns.

Making scant secret of his own loyalties on the matter, Mnuchin said, “The general public when they elected President Trump made the decision to elect him without his tax returns being released.”

Mnuchin is getting to be a rarity in the Trump Cabinet, since he was formally nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate. But now in the third year of Trump’s chaos-theory presidency, such constitutional arrangements are as outmoded as George Washington’s understated approach to real estate.

Since Trump views governing like a TV show, it should be no surprise that a key word in his limited vocabulary is “acting.”

Nearly four months after James Mattis was forced out at the Pentagon, we still have an “acting” Defense secretary. We also have an “acting” White House chief of staff, an “acting” OMB director, an “acting” Interior secretary and an “acting” ambassador to the United Nations.

This is about as accidental as the way that foreign diplomats and companies with mergers before the federal government book suites at a Trump-owned hotel a few blocks from the White House.

Trump gleefully explained his appointments strategy to reporters in January. “I like acting,” he said. “It gives me more flexibility. Do you understand that?”

Oh, yes, it came through loud and clear.

An acting Cabinet or sub-Cabinet official is a guarantee of a sycophant begging Trump to keep his or her job. Also, many of these temporary officials like former “acting” Attorney General Matt Whitaker (a onetime “masculine toilet” entrepreneur) probably could not be confirmed for anything major even by the rubber-stamp GOP Senate under McConnell.

All this brings us to the Department of Homeland Security, where the executive suite has been depopulated by Trump’s version of the neutron bomb. Almost all the Senate-confirmed officials are gone, beginning with Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, who, under Trump, lost her reputation, her soul and ultimately her job.

[The Cabinet secretary who should have known better]

Within hours after Nielsen — the smiling face of family separations at the border — was forced to resign, Politico reported that her friends were already plotting her return to the good graces of the establishment. If there is any justice, Nielsen should quietly do good works for 20 years before she starts hoping for any rehabilitation of her image.

The Trump reign of terror at Homeland Security has created so many other vacancies (deputy secretary, ICE chief, inspector general and Secret Service director) that any random anti-immigration zealot who sets foot in the cafeteria may be drafted for a top “acting” position.

What this means, in practice, is that power flows to White House aides like Stephen Miller, whose views are so extreme that they make Trump himself seem like an apostle of open borders. The loser in all this, of course, is the Senate and its cherished advice-and-consent powers.

McConnell and company should know that the next Democratic president will be tempted to use the same “acting” shell game to get around Senate confirmation fights. In fact, the more that Trump is willing to stake his presidency on his draconian border policies rather than the economy, the more likely it is that a Democrat will be occupying the Oval Office in 2021.

Presidents, even those willfully ignorant of history, set precedents. And Senate Republicans will be living for decades with the legacy of a Trumpian power grab.

Walter Shapiro has covered the last 10 presidential campaigns. He is also a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU and a lecturer in political science at Yale. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.