This past week, frustrated with Mexico’s inaction on illegal immigration into the United States, the President threatened to close the U.S.-Mexico border. This would’ve been an unprecedented—and extraordinarily costly—escalation in the President’s fight to curb the flow of immigrants entering the country. The President relented, however, thanks to pushback from within his administration led by Kirstjen Nielsen, the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, and Mike Pompeo, the Secretary of State, after Nielsen and Pompeo stressed that such an extreme measure would do more harm than good.
That pushback would prove to be the end of Nielsen’s turbulent tenure in the Administration. After Nielsen was excoriated at a cabinet meeting last week, she drew up a “list of things that needed to change,” in preparation for a meeting with the President, according to reporting by the New York Times. When she went to said meeting, however, the President ignored the list and insisted that she resign. After their meeting, Nielsen submitted her letter of resignation, adding her name to the lengthy list of administration officials who either resigned, were forced to resign, or were fired.
Nielsen is perhaps most notable for enduring intense public scrutiny while steadily checking the President’s more extreme policy agenda items from within the administration. A lifelong bureaucrat, Nielsen was the rare member of the administration equipped with both pedigree and relevant experience. Nielsen was educated the Georgetown school of Foreign Service and the University of Virginia School of Law, then worked as a special assistant to the security council in George W. Bush’s administration. Before being appointed Secretary of the DHS, she worked for John Kelly, first in his role as Secretary of DHS and subsequently as Chief of Staff in the current administration.
Those qualifications also made Nielsen the target of the President’s suspicion. In an administration where loyalty is prized above insight, she was seen as a Washington insider who only knew how to play by the rules. And for good reason: repeatedly throughout her tenure, Nielsen had to be the voice of reason in order to explain why something that the President wanted to do—stop offering asylum, for instance—was illegal and therefore impossible. Nielsen also hesitated to toe the party line on issues like family separation, and only complied when the President pressured her to do so. While she remained a thoughtful and practiced bureaucrat, she did whatever possible to assuage the President’s concerns that she was undermining his agenda, even adopting his language of a “crisis” at the border.
Needless to say, Nielsen’s efforts to comport herself as a border ideologue did not sufficiently convince her critics in the administration. Nor did they allow her to appoint her own successor. As the undersecretary for management and acting deputy, Claire Grady was next in the department’s line of succession, as outlined in federal law. Like Nielsen, Grady was eminently qualified for her position, having nearly three decades of experience at DHS and the Defense Department. But Grady was also forced to submit her letter of resignation this week, after the President announced that he would instead be appointing a hardliner, Kevin McAleenan, to become the acting Secretary of the DHS.
Though it would be difficult to say that Secretary Nielsen’s time in office was an unmitigated success, it is clear that her breadth of experience and her humanitarian instincts played a role in checking many of the administration’s more extreme impulses. Some have speculated that the specter of family separation will follow Nielsen long after she leaves office. I hope that this is not the case, as it seems fairly obvious to me that Nielsen was doing whatever was necessary to remain at her post and prevent a catastrophe. Further, we need more, not less, women like Nielsen to step up and serve in the current administration. If we place the blame for family separation squarely on her shoulders, we only pave the way for the President to fill his ranks with those who will never challenge him.
© Dr. Carmen Schaye
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