There is probably no figure in Trumpland this side of Anthony Scaramucci more polarizing than Kris Kobach. The Kansas secretary of State has long been known for his national involvement in controversial anti-immigration measures; he was reportedly the principal author of Arizona’s much-reviled and much-imitated SB 1070, the “Papers, please!” statute that drafted local law-enforcement personnel into immigration enforcement. But Kobach is even better known for his championship of thinly reasoned “voter fraud” theories, and for measures that voting-rights advocates consider blatant efforts to suppress minority voting. Shortly after Donald Trump made him the driving force behind a Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, voting-rights scholar Ari Berman called Kobach “one of the leading intellectual architects of a new nativist movement that is rapidly gaining influence not just in the United States but across the globe.” The commission has already roiled Republican as well as Democratic election officials with its demands for sensitive voting data.
So Kobach’s career trajectory is of more than passing interest to a lot of Americans on both sides of the partisan barricades. He was the object of plenty of speculation as the Trump administration was formed, particularly when alert reporters deciphered a rather alarming briefing memo on immigration and refugee policy (advocating tracking and “extreme vetting” of Muslims and a total cutoff of refugees from Syria) Kobach was holding just prior to a transition meeting with the president-elect last November. According to the Kansan, he was more or less offered a top job at the Department of Homeland Security, the natural landing point for ambitious nativists, though there were reports that Trump’s choice as secretary of that agency, John Kelly — or perhaps congressional Republicans — vetoed the gig.
Now that Kelly has become White House chief of staff, Kobach’s name has naturally surfaced again for the DHS cabinet post, though at the moment the front-runner seems to be Representative Michael McCaul of Texas, who chairs the House Homeland Security Committee. Acting ICE director Thomas Homan and Kobach, for the moment, are also-rans.
But one reason Kobach is not being taken too seriously for the cabinet gig is that he’s already running for governor of Kansas next year, having announced his candidacy last month. Guess what his main campaign message is? Kobach called Kansas the “sanctuary state of the Midwest” and claimed that the state spends hundreds of millions on public services for illegal immigrants.
But there’s one problem with the theory that Kobach is the Trump-blessed successor to the failed (and term-limited) GOP tax-cutter Sam Brownback: Trump’s appointment of the incumbent last week to a State Department position makes Kobach’s rival, Lieutenant Governor Jeff Colyer, a sitting governor going into 2018. Kobach is still probably the favorite for the GOP nomination, but the power to command resources and media as governor will certainly help Colyer, who is likely to compete for the same pro-Brownback conservative voters as Kobach. So that could be interpreted as indicating that Trump has other plans for his Kansas mentor/protégé.
The choice between McCaul and Kobach (if those are the finalists) for the cabinet position could be a barometer of the administration’s attitude toward Congress and the Republican Party. Choosing McCaul would confirm that despite all the heartburn over health-care legislation, the Trump administration thinks of congressional Republicans as its close and natural allies. Going with Kobach would please fellow immigration hard-liners on the Hill like Steve King, but not too many others.
There’s one more hypothesis about what could happen that is a real mind-bender. Fox News’ Dana Perino suggested that Trump might ask Attorney General Jeff Sessions to slide over to DHS, simultaneously punishing the Alabaman for his traitorous recusal on the Russia investigation, while harnessing his zealousness in the holy cause of restricting immigration.
Perino hasn’t speculated about what would happen at Justice if Sessions were to vacate that position, but there is an available Trump acolyte who personally argues his office’s many cases through the federal judicial system, and bills himself as “the ACLU’s worst nightmare.” That would be Yale Law School grad Kris Kobach. If you don’t think the Trump administration can get any weirder, imagine Kobach becoming the nation’s chief voting-rights-enforcement official.
Maybe progressives should be sending Kobach many messages and campaign contributions encouraging him to stay in Topeka.