DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielson forced out by immigration hardliners

WASHINGTON – Kirstjen Nielsen confirmation hearing. Official DHS photo by Jetta Disco.

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielson abruptly resigned Sunday evening after a tumultuous tenure. Late Sunday evening, Nielson tweeted her plans to stay with DHS on through Wednesday in order “to assist with an orderly transition and ensure that key DHS missions are not impacted”.

CNN reports that sources close to Nielson say she was forced to resign but did not beg for her job. One source familiar with Nielson’s thinking says that she feels her resignation is a relief, having believed that her relationship with the president was becoming “untenable” and that he is “becoming increasingly unhinged about the border crisis and making unreasonable and even impossible requests.”  Trump asked her to close the border and to stop accepting asylum seekers altogether, according to the New York Times.

John Kelly, former DHS Secretary and former White House chief of staff, backed Nielson’s promotion to the top DHS position. After Kelly left the White House, Nielson had few allies. She was at odds with Kelly’s replacement, Mick Mulvaney, and Stephen Miller, senior adviser to the president, and John Bolton, national security adviser, all immigration hardliners, saw Nielson as soft on border security and insufficiently tough, CNN reports. In addition, Fox News host Lou was no fan of Nielson and neither was President Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, who has inserted himself into the immigration discussions.

Nielson, in spite of initially resisting signing on for weeks, will be remembered for the administration’s catastrophic family separation policy which separated thousands of children from their parents. Nearly a year after the zero tolerance policy was put into action by then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, hundreds of children remain separated from their parents and the administration told the court that it needs two years to reunite them. Nielson, per NBC, resisted President Trump’s demands to reinstate widespread family separations for months, telling him that DHS was prohibited from reinstating the policy by federal court orders. However, President Trump believes that the family separation policy is the best deterrent for the large numbers of asylum seekers at the border and Nielson became the target of his ire.

The New York Times reports that the president demanded the DHS secretary cut funding to Central American countries, even though the responsibility for foreign aid is the State Department. Nielson traveled to Honduras to sign a compact with the governments of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras only to have the president announce a day later the State Department was cutting foreign aid to those countries. President Trump further undermined Nielson’s authority by raising speculation that he might install an “immigration czar”.

Nielson leaves behind a sprawling department that is tasked with overseeing not only immigration and border issues, but also FEMA, TSA, infrastructure protection and cybersecurity. One DHS official told CNN that there is “some exasperation” following Nielson’s resignation and that the department has longtime vacancies that it doesn’t have “the depth” to fill. Another administration official pointed out that following Nielson’s departure, “Now you’ll get someone who knows border and immigration, but may not know the rest of DHS.”

Trump has named Kevin McAleenan as acting DHS secretary. Normally, the deputy secretary would take over in the departure of the secretary. However, DHS has no deputy secretary and the Times points out that, by law, Claire Grady, the under secretary for management, is the next in line. She would need to be fired to clear a path for McAleenan to take over as DHS secretary and colleagues say Grady has no intention of resigning.

In the running to replace Nielson long term is Ken Cuccinelli, former Virginia governor, per the Times.

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