Myers: Trump pits his people against the law

Craig Deare, appointed by Donald Trump a month ago to head the National Security Council’s western hemisphere division, was fired Feb. 17.

Sally Yates, acting attorney general, was fired by Trump on Jan. 30.

Both of them were fired for disagreeing with Trump.

“I don’t think that any person that is there in order to carry out the president’s agenda should be against the president’s agenda,” said White House spokesperson Sarah Sanders. “It seems pretty silly that you would have somebody that’s not supportive of what you’re trying to accomplish there to carry out that very thing.”

This is a lot more complicated than it seems, particularly in the case of the attorney general. In some cases, supporting THIS president can mean breaking the law. And Trump seems to be courting that difficulty for his appointees. In many cases, he has appointed agency chiefs who do not believe in the missions of their agencies. Trump doesn’t want his appointees bucking his policies. But his personal policies are not necessarily federal policies. Congress sets policy and uses federal law to apply those policies. Trump is setting up situations in which his appointees are in a position to support his policies while opposing federal policies.

Ronald Reagan as president showed how it could be done. He appointed Anne Gorsuch (mother of Trump’s supreme court nominee) as administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Gorsuch raised the threshold for clean air, encouraged polluters to continue polluting, allowed greater use of restricted pesticides, and put industry figures in charge of regulating their industries. She also turned the responsibility for some environmental enforcement over to the states, which is like turning enforcement of the cookie jar over to Dennis the Menace. Not surprisingly, Gorsuch ended up cited for Contempt of Congress.

In the case of the acting attorney general, actions of the courts on the Trump executive order seem to indicate that it was possible to support Trump or support federal law on immigration, but not to support both. Comedian Andy Borowitz, who writes “news” reports for the New Yorker magazine, handled this one beautifully, reporting that Yates was fired after she was caught reading the U.S. Constitution:

“Suspecting that Yates was in breach of that rule, [Trump aide Steve] Bannon seized Yates’s computer at the Justice Department and discovered that she had secretly downloaded a complete copy of the 1789 document. ‘Sally Yates was hatching a covert plot to require my actions to be in accordance with the Constitution,’ Trump said. ‘We caught her red-handed.’ Trump said he hoped Yates’s firing would send Justice Department staffers the message that ‘if you are caught flagrantly obeying the Constitution, you will be out of here’.”

Trump seems to think that his executive orders are the equivalent of federal policy and that his appointees must toe his line. Such is true of some presidents, but Trump’s EOs have been sloppily written. Even if it were true that his appointees must follow the EOs instead of the congressional policy, many federal officials – not, possibly, the head of the National Security Council’s western hemisphere division, but certainly including the attorney general – are required BY STATUTE to implement policies with which presidents do not necessarily agree. Trump is sending the message that his appointees must support him, no matter what the law says.

Fortunately for the public, presidential appointees come and go. But the longtime staffs of agencies – who know the law and make sure it is followed – will likely resist figures like Trump’s EPA administrator Scott Pruitt if he tries to supplant federal policy with presidential tampering.

Trump’s practice of appointing agency chiefs who do not support the functions of their agencies – or even believe their agencies should not exist – will make the importance of figures like his eventual attorney general even more important, because this is a president who may have to be forced to respect federal policies and federal law.

Dennis Myers is an award-winning journalist who has reported on Nevada’s capital, government and politics for several decades. He has also served as Nevada’s chief deputy secretary of state.

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