When border agents fired canisters of tear gas into a crowd of unarmed migrants in Tijuana over the weekend, officials in the Department of Homeland Security and White House quietly cheered.
It was exactly the fodder they needed in the waning days of Republican-controlled Washington to pressure Congress for billions to fund the border wall.
That sentiment, which was palpable at DHS in particular, startled some in the highest ranks of Customs and Border Patrol, an official in the agency told The Daily Beast.
“They are totally all in. They have gone batshit crazy,” one former senior official said of leaders inside DHS and the White House. “They are getting exactly what they want, which is the ability to present the narrative that the border is out of control.”
Behind the scenes, officials inside the White House and Department of Homeland Security had no plans to change course or call for restraint by law enforcement agents, according to six current and former officials familiar with conversations about border security. That thinking was apparent in a statement issued by DHS Monday evening in which Secretary Kristjen Nielsen doubled down on the administration's stance on use of force, saying that the violence at the border was “entirely predictable.”
Individuals inside DHS have said for weeks that the department was allocating more and more time to focusing on immigration enforcement. Some said they thought the conversations in the administration would die down after the elections. Instead, senior staff have focused primarily on upping the public statements by Secretary Nielsen about the so-called “caravan.” Internal memos and daily news briefings, too, have focused almost entirely on what the department views as a threat on the border.
The increasingly intense focus on the caravan came amidst public reports that Nielsen would soon be out of a job.
“If I am Nielsen, I am definitely going to be all in with the presidents demands about potential use of force because I wouldn’t want to lose my job,” said one former U.S. official briefed on the border chaos.
The president saw the weekend’s tear gassing as yet another invitation to threaten Mexico and demand border wall funding.
“Mexico should move the flag waving Migrants, many of whom are stone cold criminals, back to their countries,” Trump tweeted on Monday morning. “Do it by plane, do it by bus, do it anyway you want, but they are NOT coming into the U.S.A. We will close the Border permanently if need be. Congress, fund the WALL!”
According to sources inside DHS and the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service, the two agencies have held multiple phone calls with senior advisers in the White House about the dire situation on the border. Those calls, some of which were previously scheduled, touched on the need for the administration to slow down the number of people trying to cross the border.
The conversations between DHS, USCIS and the White House grew tense at times, sources said, especially if participants questioned the Trump team’s new direction on border control.
“It sounds like those in the White House who are promoting a confrontational interaction with members of the caravan… there are disagreements between them and the professionals who have a background in border security operations,” said John Cohen, former acting undersecretary at DHS under Obama. “There are those like Stephen Miller who has no operational background who help roll out these initiatives without receiving substantive input from people in the know. And then it requires a course correction.”
Two members of the DHS advisory council told The Daily Beast that the last call between Nielsen and the group about the border took place at the beginning of the month. Members of the council are scheduled to travel to the Rio Grande Valley to meet with border agents and local officials in December and January. The focus of the trip is to allow the council to gather information so as better to advise the secretary, according to individuals who plan to travel to Texas.
A White House spokesman did not respond to a request to comment on the record for this story as of press time. DHS and USCIS also did not provide comment for this story.
Within Trump’s inner circle, the skirmish and the news footage of it weren’t only welcome as vindication, but also as an opportunity to berate media outlets once more for challenging the president’s pre-midterms caravan hysteria. One White House official told The Daily Beast that numerous mainstream media outlets owe President Trump “an apology” for casting doubt on his claims that the caravan represents a threat to the United States, citing the latest incident as a sign of trouble.
“Is storming the border an act of an ‘invasion’ or nah?” Katrina Pierson, a Trump reelection campaign senior adviser, mockingly tweeted at CNN correspondent Jim Acosta on Sunday, representing their public spat that got Acosta temporarily booted from the White House. Laura Ingraham, a Fox News star and a close Trump friend, posted to Twitter, “These individuals smashing borders are criminals. Not migrants.”
There is still scant evidence that the caravan, largely of impoverished migrants and refugees, actually poses a national security threat to the U.S. However, there is ample evidence that the caravan migrants themselves face grave threats of violence and persecution.
Throughout Trump and the GOP’s demagoguing of the migrants, one core source of political support—Trump-loving evangelical leaders and activists—has remained, for the most part, conspicuously quiet.
Still, Robert Jeffress, a Dallas megachurch pastor and Trump ally, told The Daily Beast on Monday that Trump’s decision to crack down on the poor and the meek was a part of a “God-given responsibility.”
“America shows tremendous, Christ-like compassion toward immigrants who are willing to come into our country legally,” Jeffress said, ignoring that many of the immigrants en route to the U.S. were seeking asylum legally through port of entry.
Officials inside DHS— those who typically speak up about changes to use of force protocol by border agents--have also, somewhat confusingly to observers, remained quiet about the turn of events in Tijuana, according to two staffers in the department.
“It doesn’t seem like there is anyone telling the White House that by deploying resources the way they are deploying them they are creating a more dangerous environment than if they take a different approach,” Cohen said. “They should rapidly identity and assess the people in Tijuana, disperse those who don’t have a legal claim and expedite the movement of people who do.”