Editor’s Note: David Rothkopf is a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He is the author of “Running the World: The Inside Story of the National Security Council and the Architects of American Power” and “The Great Questions of Tomorrow.” Follow him on Twitter: @djrothkopf. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer. View more opinion articles on CNN.
National security adviser John Bolton and White House chief of staff John Kelly got into a shouting match outside the Oval Office on Thursday, according to reports from CNN and Bloomberg. Profanities rang through the West Wing and staffers began to speculate as to which of the two officials, arguably the two top White House aides to the President, would resign first.
Then came damage control. That included this White House’s most dependable form of confirmation that the brouhaha actually took place: The President denied knowing anything about it.
In any other presidency, an event like this would be shocking. Senior White House officials don’t usually behave so unprofessionally in the open and, more importantly, most presidents would object if they did. Behind closed doors, all administrations have blow-ups. But decorum used to matter in ways it clearly does not for Team Trump.
This battle was only the latest example of chaos in an administration that surfs the bubbling froth of constant turbulence from dawn to dusk. From Bob Woodward’s book “Fear” to the steady stream of resignations, departures, firings, indictments, convictions and scandals that have dogged the Trump executive branch, reports of internal disarray and conflict are so common, staffers might reasonably expect combat pay just for showing up each day.
But there was something shocking about Thursday’s fight. The battle apparently was over immigration policy. And it took place, reports said, because during the White House meeting that preceded it, the President and Bolton were making the case, sources told CNN, that Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen was not being tough enough on migrants heading to the southern border, not deterring them fiercely enough. Kelly defended the record of Nielsen, his former deputy.
Think about that for a moment. Nielsen, whose DHS stole migrant children from their parents, put the children in pens, made babies defend themselves in immigration court, made immigration policy the subject of investigations by global human rights organizations, was being derided by the President and Bolton for being too soft on immigration.
Family separation? Deporting soldiers who served their country? Deploying National Guard? Defying court orders? None of these were tough enough for Donald Trump and Bolton, who apparently were arguing that we need even more odious and un-American border policies than the ones that regularly have cartoonists depicting the Statue of Liberty weeping into her hands.
Trump clearly sees political benefit to more border-related fear-mongering, as his frantic tweets about a “caravan” of Hondurans heading our way suggest. Clearly Bolton – like the White House architect of anti-immigrant policies, Stephen Miller – shares the President’s view.
And clearly, Kelly and Nielsen, not to date known for their conscience or restraint on these policies, were seen as too permissive.
In a Washington that’s hard to shock, that’s truly mind-boggling. Senior officials shouting obscenities at each other in one of the most revered places in all of America? Not so much.