As the Trump administration wrestles with what it calls a “crisis” of immigration from Central America, Kirstjen Nielsen resigned Sunday as head of the Department of Homeland Security, which includes the agencies charged with enforcing the nation’s border and immigration laws.
President Trump announced the move on Twitter.
“I would like to thank her for her service,” Trump tweeted, adding that current Customs and Border Protection commissioner, Kevin McAleenan, would step in as acting DHS secretary.
....I am pleased to announce that Kevin McAleenan, the current U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner, will become Acting Secretary for @DHSgov. I have confidence that Kevin will do a great job!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 7, 2019
Nielsen later posted a copy of her resignation to Twitter.
Its been an honor of a lifetime to serve with the brave men and women of @DHSgov. I could not be prouder of and more humbled by their service, dedication, and commitment to keep our country safe from all threats and hazards. pic.twitter.com/lIQ5iqGDmF
— Sec. Kirstjen Nielsen (@SecNielsen) April 7, 2019
Nielsen’s departure comes amid heightened claims from the Trump administration of a crisis at the southwest border. On Friday, Trump abruptly pulled his nomination for the head of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, stating his desire to go “in a tougher direction.”
During her tumultuous tenure with the Trump administration, Nielsen, who previously served as chief of staff to former DHS Secretary John Kelly, faced criticism from both current and former DHS officials as well as White House aides and, ultimately, the president.
Nielsen initially followed Kelly to the White House when he took over as chief of staff in September 2017, but she reportedly clashed with West Wing aides. Despite concerns over her lack of experience, Trump nominated Nielsen in October 2017 to replace Kelly in the Cabinet and she was easily confirmed in December. She is the sixth head of Homeland Security since it was established in 2002.
For months, Trump has reportedly expressed dissatisfaction with Nielsen’s performance on the border. Kevin Landy, who led ICE’s Office of Detention Policy and Planning under the Obama administration, told Yahoo News that ongoing clashes between the president and the DHS secretary seemed to stem from the fact that “she couldn’t solve what he considers a border crisis by changing the law unilaterally or miraculously generating resources that Congress hasn’t funded.”
“The same legal and funding constraints facing DHS now are going to continue to face DHS whoever the new secretary is,” said Landy. “Trump seems to be on the edge of insanity when it comes to the border influx, and he seems incapable of dealing with the reality that there are no easy solutions.”
“In a normal administration, there isn’t a chance in hell she would get nominated for anything above an undersecretary job,” one former national security official who, like Nielsen, served under President George W. Bush, told the New Yorker in March 2018.
In her five years with the Bush administration, Nielsen primarily oversaw the White House’s domestic disaster relief and prevention policy. She was named in two congressional reports as one of the officials who failed to inform the White House of the severity of the situation in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. After the fallout from Katrina in 2008, Nielsen left for the private sector, where she rebranded herself as a cybersecurity expert.
According to the New Yorker, many current and former DHS officials viewed Nielsen as an “opportunist,” seeking to ingratiate herself with the president by adopting the hard-line stance on immigration of Kelly and White House staffers like Stephen Miller “who see D.H.S. as a tool to advance their hard-line agenda on immigration.”
Trump has reportedly been frustrated for months by Nielsen’s performance. In one particularly heated exchange at the White House last May, the New York Times reported that Trump berated her over what he viewed as a lack of progress toward carrying out his pledge to completely close U.S. borders to illegal immigrants.
The Times reported that this humiliation had prompted Nielsen to draft a resignation letter, which a DHS spokesperson denied. Nielsen did not step down, and became the public face of the Trump administration’s most controversial policy yet: forcibly separating immigrant parents and children who attempted to enter the U.S. together along the southwest border. Nielsen defended the administration’s actions in the face of widespread outrage, insisting at a White House press briefing that there was actually no such family separation policy — just days before Trump signed an executive order abolishing it.
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