Kirstjen Nielsen’s ugly legacy at Homeland Security

Where she stood.
Where she stood.
Image: Reuters/Joshua Roberts
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No one gets out of the Trump administration with a better reputation.

Oil man Rex Tillerson’s stint as secretary of state will be remembered for his dismantling of the US’s diplomatic corps, being fired while on the toilet, and a shaky farewell speech about integrity.

Alabama senator Jeff Sessions embraced brutal anti-immigrant policies as attorney general while creating a fake crime wave and dismantling civil-rights protections. The early adopter of Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy was rewarded with Trump’s withering public scorn and the boot. In the official photo of Sessions’ farewell, he literally appears to be off-kilter, as if he were about to topple over.

Now Kirstjen Nielsen’s rocky tenure atop the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) appears to be near its end. Her lasting legacy in the Trump administration may be its ugliest and most heart-rending to date: overseeing a policy that ripped hundreds of poor children, some just toddlers, from their parents’ arms at the US border, and locking them away for months. Dozens of congressional Democrats are renewing calls for Nielsen to resign, holding her responsible for “unimaginable trauma.”

Less visible has been other damage she’s overseen. Nielsen leaves the agency responsible for threats to US transportation systems, borders, internet, air, and water weakened, disorganized, and dangerously politicized, security experts say. Many top jobs still haven’t been filled. Senior DHS officials described her to Quartz as indecisive and as having a dangerous tendency to over-promise to the White House.

Nielsen’s future will be decided “shortly,” Trump told reporters today (Nov. 14), after aides put out word over the weekend (for the second time in six months) that Trump wants her gone. In what’s become classic Trump humiliation fashion, Nielsen was walking Texas’s southern border to visit hundreds of US troops when Trump spoke about her impending ouster. Defense secretary James Mattis, accompanying Nielsen, pulled her aside for a moment of private chat as Trump’s words became public.

Nielsen, 46, was a little-known cybersecurity expert assigned to help John Kelly through his unchallenging confirmation process as homeland security secretary. She quickly became his trusted chief of staff, then Kelly’s top aide when he became White House chief of staff, before being a surprise nominee to lead DHS.

She drew criticism for failing to bone up on Russia’s hacking of the US election, claiming she “did not hear” Trump’s comments about “shithole” African countries, and saying she wasn’t aware Norway was a majority white country. Nothing in Nielsen’s background suggested she was an anti-immigrant extremist. She just seemed to be trying to keep the boss happy.

She was caught between the Trump White House’s extremist positions on immigration, an American public that mostly doesn’t share those beliefs, and a Congress that wouldn’t give her the budget or the means to execute them.

“She was in a no-win situation,” said John D. Cohen, former DHS acting undersecretary for intelligence and analysis, and counter-terrorism coordinator.

“She was the point person on implementing the administration’s anti-immigration agenda,” he said. “There was no way she was going to avoid rebranding the department.”

In a fitting bit of symbolism, days after 11 people were shot in a Pittsburgh synagogue in an apparent anti-Semitic attack and prominent Democrats received pipe bombs in the mail, Nielsen had a call with a group called the Homeland Security Advisory Council, made up of security professionals and local law-enforcement officials.

The main topic was neither homegrown extremism nor mass shootings. Nielsen focused instead on one thing: the “caravan” of poor Central American asylum seekers that was still hundreds of miles away for the US border, the main political talking point for Trump ahead of the midterms.