Homeland Security IG opens probe on EO implementation

The fallout from a weekend of chaos has not yet ended. The Inspector General for the Department of Homeland Security will conduct a review of the implementation of Donald Trump’s executive order that put a 120-day hold on incoming travelers from seven high-risk countries, The Intercept reported late yesterday. Acting on requests from two Democratic Senators and an unspecified number of whistleblowers, the IG will delve into whether DHS officials defied court orders in some instances, and whether they were directed to do so:

Following a request from Congress, the Office of the Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Security has directed personnel to preserve all documents related to the implementation of President Donald Trump’s executive order barring travelers from seven Muslim majority countries last weekend as part of an internal investigation into the order’s chaotic roll-out, according to an internal document obtained by The Intercept.

In an agency-wide directive sent to DHS staff early Wednesday afternoon, the IG’s office wrote, “All agency personnel must preserve any document that contains information that is potentially relevant to OIG’s investigation, or that might reasonably lead to the discovery of relevant information relating to the implementation of this Executive Order. For the duration of this hold, any relevant information that is within your possession or control must be preserved in the exact form as it currently exists.” …

The launch of the probe, headed by DHS Inspector General John Roth, follows calls from Illinois senators Tammy Duckworth and Dick Durbin earlier this week for a “comprehensive investigation” into the “chaotic execution” of the administration’s order, which separated families around the world and led to mass protests at multiple U.S. airports.

Needless to say, this has the potential for a large degree of embarrassment for a new administration — or worse. The Trump administration was still trying to clarify what the order meant as late as yesterday afternoon, when White House counsel Don McGahn sent out an “authoritative guidance” instructing DHS that the memo did not apply to green-card holders, even though administration officials had earlier stated that it did.

An IG investigation will certainly recap all of the known chaos for public review, which means that the political damage will return for another round. The bigger concern for administration officials will be that the IG investigation will uncover a lot more chaos that hasn’t been reported, damaging the credibility of the White House on competence. There is also a possibility that the IG might find that officials ordered DHS employees to defy the temporary injunctions put in place by federal courts, which would put those officials at risk for contempt charges, at least.

The review won’t include the legality of the EO, the Washington Post reports:

Inspector General John Roth’s review, reported by The Intercept earlier Wednesday, will not assess whether Trump’s executive order is constitutional. That will be a matter left to the courts. Depending on what the review finds, though, it might lay out a narrative counter to previous assertions from the department and the White House.

Trump wrote on Twitter Monday that Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly “said that all is going well with very few problems,” though he later added there was “nothing nice about searching for terrorists before they can enter our country.” …

Homeland Security officials have conceded they made some mistakes in the rapid implementation of the order and said they would investigate concerns brought to their attention.

Apart from the attempt to treat legal permanent residents the same as visa applicants and refugees, the legality of the EO seems on pretty solid ground anyway. Even the courts that have intervened have only done so for acute, extant cases of unreasonable application — ie, for people already in transit — and have not ruled the EO itself out of order.

Still, this is an object lesson as to why competence matters as much as policy. When policy implementation gets mishandled as it did over the last several days, it invites outside investigations, and those can quickly build narratives of a bumbling administration. I warned about this in my column for The Week on Tuesday:

Almost none of this had to happen. Had the White House provided a short warning period — no more than a week — before implementing the order, travelers would not have gotten stuck in airports around the world and provided the media sensational optics for the temporary policy change. Had the White House worked more closely with the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security, they could have avoided the questionable decisions to include green-card holders and military interpreters as part of the travel suspension. Had the White House brought Yates into the huddle from the beginning, knowing full well that legal action would result from these changes no matter how smoothly they rolled out, they could have had the opportunity to replace her more quietly, rather than get blindsided by her refusal and making the opposition even more public than before.

Supporters of President Trump, and even some of his skeptics, have plenty of reason to cheer his Cabinet appointments and the policies he’s already put into place. The lack of organizational competence, however, threatens to undermine those gains. Much of what Trump pledged to do relies on his expertise and success as an executive, especially in slashing regulations in a manner that allows for greater freedom without losing the ability to prevent waste, fraud, and abuse. Voters will allow a new administration some growing pains, but the series of errors in implementing this order strains the boundaries of any honeymoon period.

Trump does have an opportunity as his Cabinet gets confirmed to hand over policy implementation to experienced deputies. That can’t happen fast enough. George W. Bush learned the hard way during Hurricane Katrina that some mistakes are so egregious they can’t be walked back, even when some of the responsibility for those mistakes should get spread around. Trump has time to right the ship. But for now, he ought to slow down, take a deep breath, and stop writing executive orders for awhile. He has four years — at least. There’s no need to do everything so fast and furious. It’s time to let the chaos subside.

As long as the IG finds nothing much more than the chaos and mishandling we already know, this should blow over soon and voters will look to the next set of issues to handle. The lessons from this debacle should not be forgotten in the White House, however.