Kirstjen Nielsen's tenure as the head of the Department of Homeland Security has been plagued by rumors of her clashes with President Trump. She stayed in the position far longer than many believed possible based on reports of the contentious relationship. However, there are now reports that indicate she remained in the job due to her concerns about what would happen to her when she attempted to rejoin the work force.
The Atlantic reports that most former government employees are immediately welcomed into comfortable academic or lobbying positions where their connections in the government are prized. Not so for Nielsen.
The career trajectory of a senior administration official who’s left government is typically filled with vaunted board seats and positions atop major corporations. But Nielsen and her aides were skittish that neither were in the cards. “She’s going to have a real challenge getting on boards,” a Republican operative close with Nielsen’s team told me this week, explaining the team’s thinking at the time. The administration’s zero-tolerance immigration policy, which led to the separation of thousands of migrant families at the border, was still fresh in everyone’s mind. “It was like, ‘We’re going to get hung with this,’” said the operative, who, like others I interviewed for this story, spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss private conversations or speak frankly. “So they were thinking even then, ‘What does she do after this?’”
...“Family separations make her completely and totally unhirable,” one former senior White House official told me. “I mean, major companies will face employee or shareholder protests over hiring any high-profile Trump person. But for someone who oversaw that debacle, holy crap—it’d be insane.” Nielsen’s team did not respond to a request for comment.
Politico reports Nielsen's allies within and outside the administration have immediately stepped in to attempt to revive her reputation and garner her gainful employment. These allies emphasized the fact that Nielsen was not solely responsible for the administration's more extreme immigration policies.
In particular, they stressed that the policy for which Nielsen is most fiercely reviled — separating detained migrant children from their parents — gave her no pleasure, and that she slow-walked or resisted other Trump demands on border security.
“I think Nielsen has been treated unfairly. A caricature was created by people who oppose the way the President talks about immigration or who even oppose current immigration law that’s been on the books for decades — and that caricature is nothing like the person she actually is,” said Thad Bingel, a former George W. Bush administration Homeland Security official who helped guide Nielsen through her Senate confirmation.
While it is unclear exactly why Nielsen was finally pushed out of the Trump administration, most stories indicate she resisted Trump's requests for her to commit crimes in order to enforce Trump's "hard line" policies. Per the Chicago Sun-Times:
“Strikes me as just a frustration of not being able to solve a problem,” said Sen. John Cornyn. “Honestly, it wasn’t Secretary Nielsen’s fault. It wasn’t for lack of effort on her part. I don’t know if there’s anybody who’s going to be able to do more.”
...According to most reporting, Nielsen was forced out because she wouldn’t carry out Trump’s illegal orders. While it’s hard to call someone who carried out his child separation policy while openly lying about what they did “courageous,” it is comforting to know there were lines she was unwilling to cross on his behalf.
Many have bristled at the idea Nielsen is not culpable in the inhumane treatment of immigrants trying to enter the country. In a New York Times op-ed, writer Michelle Goldberg argues Nielsen was ultimately responsible for enforcing the policies and should therefore be held accountable.
Nielsen did not create Trump’s monstrous policy of separating migrant families, but she should be known forever as the person who carried it out. She put babies in cages, traumatized children for life, and then appears to have lied to Congress about what she had done. She did this evil work with either blithe incompetence or malicious sloppiness, failing to create a system to properly track kids who were ripped from their families. On Friday, the Trump administration said it could take up to two years to identify thousands of separated migrant children.
Not only was she in charge of seeing these policies to fruition, she has also been accused of lying to Congress and has grossly mismanaged her department. Washington Post writer Daniel W. Drezner argues Nielsen does not deserve rehabilitation and should deal with the consequences of her numerous actions.
[L]et’s dispense with the fiction that Nielsen is worthy of rehabilitation because she refused to violate the law egregiously to satisfy Trump’s wishes. She may have still managed to violate some laws, like lying to Congress. She was also super-enthusiastic about stretching the boundaries of existing law as much as possible. Dara Lind’s excellent Vox explainer notes that Nielsen was “arguably the most aggressive secretary in the department’s short history — a stint that will most likely be remembered for the ‘zero tolerance’ prosecution policy of late spring and early summer 2018 that resulted in the separation of thousands of families attempting to cross at the US-Mexico border.” Finally, this is not someone who is resigning on principle. As my Post colleagues David Nakamura, Josh Dawsey and Seung Min Kim report, Nielsen “furiously tried to save her job” in the past week. Nielsen is the very definition of a careerist.
As Vox explains, Nielsen would be far from the first person who committed actions viewed as abhorrent while working for the government who then enjoyed long, prestigious careers.
No architects of Bush’s torture policy faced legal punishment, nor did the people responsible for cooking the books on the intelligence about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. Former President Richard Nixon received a presidential pardon after the Watergate scandal, as did Reagan Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger for lying to Congress during Iran-Contra.
Henry Kissinger, who served as secretary of state in the Nixon and Ford administrations, remains revered in Washington for his diplomatic prowess — the Obama administration gave him an award in 2016, and President Donald Trump has bought him to the White House repeatedly. But Kissinger’s actual policy record is full of black marks that we’d almost certainly call war crimes if perpetrated by a Russian or Iranian leader. Kissinger’s crimes range from masterminding the carpet-bombing of Cambodia to actively supporting Pakistan’s genocide in Bangladesh; one “back of the envelope” calculation by a historian attributes 3 or 4 million deaths to Kissinger’s policies.