Leading Homeland Security Under a President Who Embraces ‘Hate-Filled’ Talk

WASHINGTON — Elaine C. Duke, then President Donald Trump’s acting secretary of homeland security, arrived at the Roosevelt Room, down the hall from the Oval Office, on a steamy August afternoon in 2017 expecting a discussion about Trump’s pledge to terminate DACA, the Obama-era protections for young immigrants. Instead, she said, it was “an ambush.”

“The room was stacked,” she recalled. Stephen Miller, the architect of the president’s assault on immigration, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and other White House officials demanded that she sign a memo ending the program, which they had already concluded was illegal. She did not disagree, but she chafed at being cut out of the real decision-making.

“President Trump believes that he can’t trust,” Duke, now a consultant, said in a wide-ranging interview about the 14 months she spent working for him and the consequences of the president’s suspicion of what he calls the “deep state” in government. “That has affected his ability to get counsel from diverse groups of people.”

A veteran of nearly 30 years at the departments of Homeland Security and Defense, Duke was the deputy secretary of homeland security in the summer of 2017 when John F. Kelly, Trump’s first secretary, left to become White House chief of staff. Duke served in the top job at the department until late 2017, when Kirstjen Nielsen was confirmed as Kelly’s permanent successor.

A lifelong Republican who describes herself as “a kid from the Cleveland, Ohio, area,” Duke said she supported tougher enforcement of immigration laws, as long as it was tempered by a sense of humanity that she tried to exhibit when she volunteered to teach naturalization classes. But she described an administration that is often driven by ideology instead of deliberation, values politics over policy and is dominated by a president who embraces “hate-filled, angry and divisive” language.

“We get distracted by slogans, by maybe words we heard like the president allegedly saying ‘Haiti is a shithole,’” Duke said from her home overlooking the Occoquan River about 25 minutes south of Washington. “So we get only spun up in that, and then we never get to the issue.”

Duke is the latest in a series of senior officials who have gone public to describe — often in vivid, behind-the-scenes detail — their discomfort and sometimes shock at the inner workings of the Trump presidency.

She said she was especially taken aback, during the response to Hurricane Maria’s devastation of Puerto Rico, when she heard Trump raise the possibility of “divesting” or “selling” the island as it struggled to recover.

“The president’s initial ideas were more of as a businessman, you know,” she recalled. “Can we outsource the electricity? Can we can we sell the island? You know, or divest of that asset?” (She said the idea of selling Puerto Rico was never seriously considered or discussed after Trump raised it.)

Like former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, she chooses her words carefully. And like John Bolton, the former national security adviser who published a book titled “The Room Where It Happened,” Duke says she is not ready to commit to voting for Trump again.

“That’s a really hard question,” she said. “But given the choices, I don’t know yet.”

White House officials have long expressed displeasure with Duke’s short tenure as the chief of homeland security, describing her as unwilling to be a team player and resistant to the president’s agenda.

Asked about Duke’s comments, Judd Deere, a White House spokesman said that Trump “has kept his promise to the American people to reduce illegal immigration, secure the border, lower the crime rate and maintain law and order.”

“He has never wavered in his highest obligation to the American people: their safety and security,” Deere added.

Duke served in the Trump administration during a key period, just as a wave of hurricanes hit Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico. And she was there as Trump and Miller made their earliest moves against immigrants — imposing a travel ban on mostly Muslim countries; seeking to sharply limit entry by refugees; looking for ways to block asylum-seekers; and ordering an end to DACA, or the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

She said she supported the president’s efforts to tighten immigration security. But the president’s “America First” philosophy has veered toward “America Only,” she said.

She said the president and Miller were right about lax immigration laws that needed to be fixed, but she said the policy of separating families along the border — which her successor approved months after she left — was discussed, and rejected, while she was acting secretary.

“I think that we have the room to help people,” she said. “And one of the ways we have the room to help people is through our immigration system.”

One of her fondest memories, she said, was helping pass out water to homeless people in the city of Ponce on Puerto Rico’s southern coast after Hurricane Maria, which struck there in the late summer of 2017. But the response to the storm by the president and his top aides, beyond the remark about selling Puerto Rico, was also a source of disappointment.

She said that as Hurricane Maria approached Puerto Rico and Duke argued for an emergency declaration before its landfall, Mick Mulvaney, then the president’s budget director, resisted.

“Quit being so emotional, Elaine, it’s not about the people; it’s about the money,” she said Mulvaney told her. Asked about the comment, Mulvaney said Friday: “I never made such a remark. My experience with the acting director was that she rarely got anything right at DHS. At least she’s consistent.”

The next day, Duke said she was pleased when the president expressed concern about the people of Puerto Rico. But she said she grew frustrated as Trump later traded angry tweets with the island’s politicians.

“My thought process for both sides is all the negative energy is a distraction,” she said.

Duke, a soft-spoken person with little experience in the raw political combat in Washington, said that she often found herself on the outside of a core group of White House advisers even though she was a member of the president’s Cabinet.

“There is a singular view that strength is mean,” she said, “that any kind of ability to collaborate or not be angry is a weakness.”

Duke recalled that Melania Trump, the first lady, was criticized after being photographed wearing high heels as she accompanied her husband to tour parts of flood-ravaged Texas.

“We were talking,” Duke said, “and she said, ‘It’s the White House, and I will treat it with the respect and dignity it deserves, and I will dress accordingly.’ And I thought that was beautiful.”

Duke contrasted the first lady’s approach that day with Trump’s frequent use of harsh talk in person and on Twitter.

“The office of the president,” she said, “should have a certain dignity to it that I think is important.”

Her public comments — her first since leaving the administration two years ago — came just days after the Supreme Court invalidated the president’s decision in 2017 to terminate the DACA program, handing Trump one of his most humiliating legal defeats on a promise at the core of his political identity.

Duke’s most lasting legacy is likely to be the memo she signed — under pressure — to end that program. Her decision not to cite any specific policy reasons was at the heart of the Supreme Court’s ruling, which said the Trump administration had failed to substantively consider the implications of terminating the program’s protections and benefits.

Duke sa
id she did not include policy reasons in the memo because she did not agree with the ideas being pushed by Miller and Sessions: that DACA amounted to an undeserved amnesty and that it would encourage new waves of illegal immigration.

She said she still agreed that DACA “isn’t a legal program” but hoped that Republicans and Democrats in Congress would eventually find a way to allow the immigrants covered by the program to live and work permanently in the United States.

“What was missing for me is really that process of discussing it,” she said. “It is a grave decision not only from a legal standpoint but from the effect it will have on not just 700,000 people but 700,000 people plus their families.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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