Rarely is there a congressional hearing in which good (Sen. Lindsey Graham resuming being his own man) and not at all good (Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen defending the indefensible) are played out against each other in such stark relief. Tuesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee Hearing was its own reality show, raw, in real time, as the first occasion for those at the now infamous “s---hole” meeting in the White House last Thursday—the one that was supposed to save us from a government shutdown—to air what happened.
It was painful to watch for those who know how this show ends. Nielsen, adopting White House language, insisted she only heard “tough” talk. But there were only 12 people at the meeting, where everyone is obligated to hang on the president’s every word, if not to compliment him for them. She called out Graham for his tough talk without conceding that he was just repeating what the president had said. Nielsen was reminded she was under oath, the Senate's way of saying we know you are lying and would like to give you a chance to correct yourself before you are soiled forever.
If only Nielsen had taken guidance from Graham, who took the occasion to end his brief détente with Trump as expressed in golf outings, meals, and a cease-fire in comments like Trump is a race-baiter. Don’t go there, Graham now knows. The president doesn’t raise his game, but brings yours down.
But Nielsen plunged ahead, adding the fillip of an unbecoming eye-roll when Sen. Cory Booker asked her not to interrupt him, and not knowing if Norway is a predominantly white country—she who spells her name Kirstjen, as in the Scandinavian “fjord.” Nielsen is the opposite of Jim Comey, proudly showing her loyalty given that she was testifying during Trump’s TV-watching Executive Time. Nielsen isn’t only under the thumb of Trump but chief of staff Gen. John Kelly, who brought her with him to the White House as his deputy where she was given vast powers to block access to Trump.
Predictably, knives were drawn and Nielsen was the victim of leaks with special attention paid to her tenure as an assistant in the Bush White House where she, along with “heckuva job Brownie,” was blamed for the botched response to Hurricane Katrina. In any other administration, the idea of her taking over a 200,000-person law enforcement agency, previously headed up by a governor, an assistant U.S. attorney, and general counsel of the Defense Department would have been unthinkable. In this one, Kelly, during his Trump honeymoon, used his power to save his staffer.
It’s not just Graham who knows that trying to change Trump by placating him is a fool’s errand. Trump went on to win the presidency while Billy Bush lost his job over the Access Hollywood tape. Nielsen could look around and see a rogue’s gallery of those who did as Trump wished and are now unemployed, indicted, subpoenaed, and disgraced, a list that soon might include members of his family. It’s impossible to imagine but as his life becomes like those Trump described in Haiti, thanks to Trump Steve Bannon could become a figure of sympathy.
All the while Nielsen was selling her soul (as is Sen. Tom Cotton and putative CIA director-to-be, whose memory of the meeting “evolved” to comport with that of Sarah Huckabee Sanders), the deal the meeting was meant to seal is in tatters. It would have protected Dreamers (after Trump put them in jeopardy by gratuitously reversing an Obama rule that protected them), funded a wall, and averted a government shutdown. But then came Trump—unpredictable, volatile, confused in what he wanted and didn’t at the infamous meeting. Nielsen did not hear him pop off about how great it would be if lily-white Norway would send us more of its hardworking people (they work a four-day week, by the way) instead of the afore-described African countries and Haiti.
The performance wasn’t because he’s losing it, as Michael Wolff would have it. Trump aced a 30-question cognitive quiz during his physical. But this is the same physical that found Trump to be the only 71-year-old ever to grow an inch taller to 6-foot-3, which keeps him from being officially obese. It’s more disturbing that with his faculties intact Trump earlier last week embraced a Bill of Love for Dreamers and then blew up a compromise by blurting out racist feelings. Maybe Trump would change yet again if someone showed him statistics on the number of Dreamers, Haitian-, and African-Americans serving in the military versus Norwegian-Americans.
The hearing saw the return of the real Lindsey Graham, the one who dramatically smashed his phone after Trump gave out his private number, called him out after his equivocation over Charlottesville, and who said of Trump presciently on CNN that he “is going to places where very few people have gone and I’m not going with him.” He did go with him for a while after watching as Trump critics like Sen. Jeff Flake lost their influence by being unrelievedly against the president. Wednesday Flake gave a incisive critique of Trump for making common cause with the world’s despots by calling the press enemies of the people—to a near empty chamber.
By resuming his objections to Trump—he was the first Republican to announce that he won’t be voting for stop-gap funding to keep the government open saying it’s “pretty naïve” to think that “a bill without DACA in it can pass”—Graham risks becoming just another knee-jerk critic.
And as for Nielsen, there’s still time for her to correct the transcript of the hearing. To be on the wrong side of Trump, as Graham has (for now) concluded, is likely to put you on the right side of history.