Interrogation

“Trump’s Options Are Very Much Closing”

What we learned from a wild 24 hours in Washington and New York.

WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 09:  U.S. President Donald Trump is flanked by National Security Advisor John Bolton as he speaks about the FBI raid at his lawyer Michael Cohen's office, while receiving a briefing from senior military leaders regarding Syria,  in the Cabinet Room, on April 9, 2018 in Washington, DC. The FBI raided the office of Michael Cohen on Monday as part of the ongoing investigation into the president's administration. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
President Donald Trump is flanked by National Security Adviser John Bolton in the Cabinet Room, on Monday in Washington.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

To discuss a crazy 24 hours in Washington and New York—during which the president’s chief adviser on homeland security, Thomas P. Bossert, was forced out, and President Trump ranted and raved about the raid (reportedly following a reference from Robert Mueller’s team) on the office of his lawyer, Michael Cohen, I spoke by phone with Juliette Kayyem, a former assistant secretary at the Department of Homeland Security and the faculty chair of the Homeland Security program at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. An edited and condensed version of our conversation is below.

Isaac Chotiner: What did you make of the Bossert resignation, which seems to have been forced?

Juliette Kayyem: Just take a step back: There is a new national security adviser, and he wants to build his own team, and I do not know what their relationship was like. So in some ways, the boss, John Bolton, gets to pick his team. But—there is a big “but”—Bossert was an adult in the room. He had some struggles. He got a little bit tainted by the madness around the White House. But all-in-all, you heard that people respected him at the department, and people respected him within the homeland security staff. Now that we have come to understand that he had no idea that this was coming, that Bolton gave him no clue that there would be a new team, it’s just another example that they don’t treat people well, and that’s unfortunate.

The Department of Homeland Security is relatively recent, and the role of chief adviser on homeland security must also be recent, correct?

Yeah.

It’s not immediately obvious why that would fall under the purview of the national security adviser, which people think of as more of a foreign policy position. Can you explain why that is?

It’s a great question, because it comes down to: What is homeland security? And it absolutely should be part of the national security team, and when it isn’t, that’s when it struggles. What homeland security is really about—people tend to think about it as domestic terrorism or storms—but it is really about the secure flow of people, goods, and networks in a resilient country. And so all of those different ways of describing homeland security have international implications.

And to the extent that most of the threats the homeland faces—whether terrorism, climate change, public health pandemics—are borderless, they are cutting across international and national borders. Your question is right in the sense that in the early days after 9/11, Homeland Security was sort of siloed as if it was irrelevant or secondary to the big kids at the big kids’ table. It actually needs to be integrated into our overall national security efforts. That’s why it is placed there.

OK so to talk Mueller for a couple minutes—

In some ways what happened with Michael Cohen is highly technical and legal, but to step back: We are at that moment. I don’t know if that moment is this Friday night, I don’t know if that moment is two weeks from now, but Trump’s options are very much closing. And whether that results from him firing Mueller, or pardons, or whatever else, it’s not like this investigation is narrowing and getting further away from Trump. It is widening and getting closer. We are getting to the stage where options tend to be more limited.

The New York Times and others are reporting that the raid was about Stormy Daniels and payments to her. Are you surprised that something like that would get the go-ahead for a large-scale raid?

No, in the sense that I think everything is being done so carefully. I don’t have doubts that they crossed all their T’s and dotted all their I’s.

Right, I guess my question is about whether you think people in the Justice Department would embark on something this momentous over something like Stormy payments given the moment we are at and with the president we have. Are those types of decisions taken into account?

I don’t know, because this is so unprecedented. Lawyers do not work in vacuums. The political gravity of what they are doing is known. That’s what is so hard about this.

You never had to deal with something like this, huh?

No, God no. When I was doing counterterrorism, your entire focus was away from the White House. It’s so foreign to me. And the truth is that’s why you have insularity within the Department of Justice, and you have people focused on public corruption. My understanding is that those are the people who are looking at Michael Cohen.

Can you describe, as a national security professional, what you think might be the impact of having massive White House legal and political issues arising at a time when major national security personnel are leaving, and we might be embarking on more military action in Syria? Presidential attention might be elsewhere.

I think it’s a real—well, no, I will put it differently. Most presidents, you would say, this would obviously distract from the work that they got elected to do and are interested in doing. I am going to be totally blunt here: Do people really think that Donald Trump would be learning about the intricacies of trade wars and tariffs and ISIS footprints in Syria but for the investigation? Of course not.

At best, the Mueller stuff has handed him a distraction, but I think it is pretty safe to say he would have found one. There is no proof anywhere that this is a person who has learned. The perfect example was the military at the border last week, where it was clear the president did not understand the difference between the active military and the National Guard, and you had a whole apparatus trying to cover for him for 24 hours.