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Elaine Duke on Leading Homeland Security Under President Trump

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WASHINGTON — Elaine C. Duke, then President 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 President 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,” Ms. 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, Ms. Duke was the deputy secretary of homeland security in the summer of 2017 when John F. Kelly, Mr. Trump’s first secretary, left to become White House chief of staff. Ms. Duke served in the top job at the department until late 2017, when Kirstjen Nielsen was confirmed as Mr. Kelly’s permanent successor.

A lifelong Republican who describes herself as “a kid from the Cleveland, Ohio, area,” Ms. 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,’” Ms. 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.”

Ms. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. Trump raised it.)

Like former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, she chooses her words carefully. And like John R. Bolton, the former national security adviser who published a book titled “The Room Where It Happened,” Ms. Duke says she is not ready to commit to voting for Mr. 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 Ms. 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 Ms. Duke’s comments, Judd Deere, a White House spokesman, said that Mr. 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,” Mr. Deere added.

Ms. 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 Mr. Trump and Mr. 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 Mr. 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.”

Ms. Duke said she did not include policy reasons in the memo because she did not agree with the ideas being pushed by Mr. Miller and Mr. 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 undocumented 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.”

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