During four years struggling to keep up with the flood of court cases challenging the refusal by various Trump administration officials to follow the law, a word has come to mind so often that I can’t shake it. It’s the word “mean.” There’s a meanness to the man and to the policies issued from the sycophantic bubble that passes for his administration.
Mean may be too mild and commonplace a word to describe the astonishing fact that the Department of Homeland Security cannot find the parents of 545 children separated from them at the southern border. A violation of human rights, a descent into bureaucratic immorality, is more appropriate.
Nonetheless, mean is a word that should sting. It’s what links this administration’s actions across the government. Judges don’t use the word themselves, but it pervades their accounts of how the controversies reached a climax in their courtrooms. So I’d like to inject the word into the discourse about the Trump administration in these waning weeks.
One example is a decision this past weekend by Judge Nicholas Garaufis of Federal District Court in Brooklyn. He invalidated a series of moves by Chad Wolf, the supposed acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, following the Supreme Court’s decision in June that stopped President Trump from canceling DACA, the Obama administration program that still protects from deportation undocumented immigrants who were brought here as children.
Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for a 5-to-4 majority, said the Trump administration’s rescission effort was “arbitrary and capricious” and in violation of the Administrative Procedure Act. Notably, the decision didn’t say that the administration couldn’t cancel the program, but only that it had to go back to the drawing board and do so correctly. Among other factors, the chief justice said, the administration had to take into account the “reliance interests” of the hundreds of thousands of young people who have been accepted into the program and have ordered their lives according to its terms.
But rather than even try to walk through the door that the Supreme Court had opened, Acting Secretary Wolf went around to the back door to disable DACA to the maximum extent possible. He issued a memorandum instructing the department to reject all pending and future DACA applications; to reject all pending and future requests for “advance parole,” the status that permits DACA recipients to re-enter the country if they need to leave, for example, to visit family members; and to require DACA recipients to renew their status annually instead of every two years.
In his opinion invalidating the memorandum, Judge Garaufis simply described these measures without evaluating them. He didn’t have to, because he concluded that Mr. Wolf lacked authority to issue the memo, having been improperly designated as acting D.H.S. secretary.
The judge’s 31-page opinion offers an intricate account of the bureaucratic turmoil that has left the mammoth agency and its quarter-million employees without Senate-confirmed leadership for 600 days and counting. His deadpan account of the ways in which the formal rules of succession were flipped and evaded by a changing cast of characters makes the department seem like a Feydeau farce. (In a footnote, Judge Garaufis observed dryly: “The court wishes the government well in trying to find its way out of this self-made thicket.”)
But at the heart of this tale is meanness. Failing to bend the Supreme Court to its will, the administration tried to take revenge on a vulnerable group of people whose only offense, through no fault of their own, is living among us.
And then there is Betsy DeVos, the secretary of education who doesn’t believe in public education. She also doesn’t believe in granting legally required relief to indebted students who were defrauded by the for-profit colleges to which they paid tuition with federally guaranteed student loans. Stacy Cowley and Tara Siegel Bernard reported this distressing story in The Times last week.
Last month, in a scathing opinion, Judge William Alsup of Federal District Court in San Francisco wrote that the secretary’s policy of routinely denying applications for loan forgiveness without explanation “frankly, hangs borrowers out to dry.” While under President Barack Obama, the Department of Education granted applications at the rate of 99.2 percent, the current denial rate is 94.4 percent, with a backlog of more than 100,000 cases.
“Simply put, where there’s smoke, there’s fire,” Judge Alsup wrote. “We need to know what is really going on.” He ordered expedited discovery in a class-action lawsuit brought on behalf of the defrauded borrowers, whom the judge described as suffering from “shared trauma.” He said: “They sought opportunity via higher education only to be deceived by for-profit institutions and, at least in some cases, saddled with crushing debt.”
If there is a policy reason for her behavior, Secretary DeVos hasn’t articulated one; Judge Alsup called the department’s failure to explain itself “galling.”
Meanness might explain a lot.
Education has been a special Trump target. Given the president’s negative attitude toward both foreigners and higher education, it should have been no surprise that his administration came up with a particularly diabolical pandemic-justified way to disrupt the lives of thousands of international students enrolled in American universities. Students whose universities had gone to remote learning would lose their student visas and have to return home.
When Harvard and M.I.T. sued, the administration caved. But at the same time, students seeking to enter the United States to attend schools that still offer in-person classes had a very had time getting visas because U.S. consulates have essentially stopped processing them. As a result, international student enrollment on U.S. campuses fell this semester by 43 percent.
What could have been the reason for unsettling so many lives (and so many college budgets) in such an obviously self-defeating effort to wall the country off from the global world? The administration knew it couldn’t defend itself in court. Meanness is an explanation, not a defense.
Looking ahead, we know that Jan. 20, 2021 — Inauguration Day — won’t mark an end to the country’s troubles. President-elect Joseph R. Biden’s administration will face enormous challenges. At times, it will fail to meet them. At times, we will gnash our teeth, dispute the president’s priorities, question his judgment.
But we have this to look forward to: He won’t be mean.
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