It's Time to Do the Sally Yates Thing with Elaine Duke

By Dan Cadman on November 15, 2017

The Washington Post a few days ago broke the story, "White House chief of staff tried to pressure acting DHS [Department of Homeland Security] secretary to expel thousands of Hondurans, officials say".

The story relays how White House Chief of Staff John Kelly reached out to Acting DHS Secretary Elaine Duke to push her to end temporary protected status (TPS) for Hondurans. Describing such a decision as "expelling" the Hondurans comes pretty close to journalistic misfeasance, since ending TPS for those who benefited from the program is a far cry from actually taking them into custody and removing them. Ending TPS would require them to depart, but there isn't any reason to think that refusing to extend the program would result in roundups of Hondurans to toss them out.

What's more, consider that those who fell under the auspices of TPS have benefitted repeatedly, and unjustifiably, from serial extensions based on a hurricane in that country that took place in 1999. It's an outrageous abuse of a program that was designed to give short-term shelter — not asylum — to nationals of countries that experience some kind of calamity such as a hurricane or earthquake, or even an ebola outbreak or the like, and it's supposed to last just long enough so that those countries can put their rescue and recovery mechanisms to rights and move on.

Instead of ending the abuse, according to the story, "Duke felt that she did not have enough information for the much larger group of Hondurans" and decided on an extension. How much more could she possibly have needed to know? Continuing to abuse the statute does nothing to instill confidence in either the law or the legitimacy of the nation's immigration processes and system. Her job is to enforce the law, and give the American public a reason to believe in that system. Her decision to extend violated that public trust.

There may be a story in the article, but it's not the one that they've focused on, because the last time I checked (and I don't think anything has changed) the constitutional hierarchy puts the president at the top of the executive branch pyramid. Cabinet secretaries and their number twos (before being made acting secretary, Duke was the DHS deputy) all serve at the president's pleasure. That's because he was elected to office; they weren't. And the president sets the agenda, in immigration as in all other federal matters.

In the end, Duke shouldn't have gotten her say on this. If, as appears to be the case, the president assigned his close advisor — in this case, Kelly, who also happens to have been the former DHS secretary and who, unlike Duke, received the advice and consent of the Senate to encumber the position of secretary — to reach out to Duke and tell her what needed to be done, short of being directed to engage in illegal behavior, her ethical choice was reduced to "Do it, or resign." She did neither, and in what is clearly a drive-by swipe at the administration, an unnamed official then tipped the Kelly-Duke exchanges to the Post to cause maximum embarrassment. The Post happily obliged.

Think back to the Obama administration and its variety of outrageous and constitutionally violative "executive actions" on immigration. Even though then-DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson was the nominal author of the various executive action memoranda, does anyone for a minute believe that he made those decisions in a vacuum, or that he was given his latitude on the matter, given the determination of the president to grant some sort of administrative amnesty, and the fact that his chief domestic advisor, Cecilia Muñoz, was the former second-in-charge at La Raza, an overtly open borders organization? Of course not, but we didn't see anything in the Post about the internal calls, dialogue, or machinations then did we?

It is disturbing, though, that according to the Post, "White House officials said Kelly acknowledged during the call that the decision was Duke's to make". Since when? Only if the administration was abdicating its own decision-making and agenda-setting responsibilities — which they may have done, since the Post also suggests that "In public, at least, the White House has deferred questions about TPS, calling the decision a prerogative of Homeland Security officials, in consultation with the State Department."

That Duke is described as "angry" at Kelly's calls, and that other unnamed officials flagged this matter to Washington Post reporters as if something untoward occurred, makes clear that there are still significant problems with recalcitrant officials in DHS who are resisting the Trump administration, but also that the administration is its own worst enemy and continues to shoot itself in the foot with poor leadership personnel choices and vacillation from within.

Seeing this play out reminds me of the kerfuffle that happened at the Justice Department when Sally Yates was designated to act as attorney general, and Trump ended up having to fire her.

Duke, like Yates, was an Obama holdover. What is troubling is that she was able to transition from the Department of State into the deputy's job at DHS in the first place — something that should have raised many red flags — yet it took place apparently without objection by Kelly, and possibly at his behest. In fact she was at one point apparently being floated as his permanent replacement when he became chief of staff to the president, an ascension which would have been disastrous.

So now we have the DHS spokesman disputing that as result of the calls, Duke will resign, saying "there is 'zero factual basis' to the claim that Duke has said she will step down".

If the White House wants to maintain even a shred of credibility on this, and that's doubtful given how everything has played out, then the answer is clear: Fire her.