Sheriff Clarke Joining Homeland Security Would Be Even Worse Than You Think

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A conversation with Philip McNamara, the guy who formerly held Clarke’s role-to-be.

This week’s news that President Trump will reportedly tap Milwaukee County Sheriff and novelty hat enthusiast David Clarke for a position in the Department of Homeland Security led to a wave of entirely-justified disbelief, outrage, and fear. Clarke is a genuinely vile person who is better known for his vitriol-laden Fox News talking heads than for protecting and serving the people who elect him. Four people in his custody have died during the past year alone, including a mentally ill man who died after sadistic jail officials cut off water to his cell for seven days. Clarke isn’t fit to operate a pair of handcuffs, much less take a seat at the table at which high-ranking officials make critical decisions about America’s national security.

Yet according to Philip McNamara, who held Clarke’s purported position-to-be during the Obama administration, this is exactly what is about to happen. McNamara explained to me that the Assistant Secretary of Partnerships and Engagement’s primary role is to manage DHS’ links to “critical homeland security partners” nationwide. Since homeland security is a shared responsibility—as McNamara pointed out, when a crisis occurs, people call 911, not the Washington, D.C. number for DHS—his office served as a liaison between the federal government and governors, mayors, county executives, tribal leaders, and law enforcement at all levels. This is a pragmatic function, not a partisan one, which is precisely why Sheriff Clarke is the wrong guy for the job.

During his tenure, McNamara helped to coordinate the federal reaction to some of the most dangerous threats to public safety of the last eight years: the Boston Marathon bombing, the Ebola threat, and the San Bernardino and Orlando shootings, among others. In those high-stakes moments, DHS must rely on the relationships they’ve developed over time with local partners, who, in turn, have to be able to trust the federal government’s response. Republicans knew that McNamara was a Democrat, but could nonetheless be confident that they would receive no-nonsense help when it mattered most.

On the other hand, Sheriff Clarke’s unsettlingly combative approach to his work—he recently swore that he would only reach across the aisle to a Democrat to “grab one of them by the throat”—makes him ill-equipped for this delicate task. And if he doesn’t give Democratic partners the resources they need, and if they can’t trust him to treat them fairly, people’s lives could be placed in danger as a result.

I asked McNamara why the Trump administration might nevertheless think that this decision is a good idea. He pointed to two primary explanations. First, the White House likely wants to take care of one of its most vocal surrogates whose act is quickly wearing thin in his day job. This position is one of the highest-ranking executive branch roles that plausibly aligns with Clarke’s background and doesn’t require Senate confirmation—a process that he would almost certainly not survive.

More importantly, though, this arrangement would allow Clarke, an uncompromising ideologue cut from the same cloth as Trump, a significant level of access to the Department’s decision-making processes. The Assistant Secretary is on the same footing as the heads of other DHS components, including FEMA, TSA, the Secret Service, the Border Patrol, and ICE. When the Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly convenes a leadership meeting, Clarke’s voice will be heard along with everyone else’s. McNamara fears that Clarke, an immigration hard-liner, will lean on his new colleagues to integrate anti-immigrant policies into their components’ agendas, while simultaneously trying to convince his former colleagues—sheriffs, police chiefs, and the like—to deputize their officers to help carry out the administration’s war on immigrants.

A good reason for Donald Trump to put Sheriff Clarke in this job, in other words, is because it is the easiest way to get an extremist like Clarke in the room. The damage he would choose to inflict once there, though, is anyone’s guess.

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