Politics

Kirstjen Nielsen Wasn’t Cruel and Lawless Enough for Trump. That Doesn’t Exonerate Her.

Nielsen walking down a tree-lined street.
Kirstjen Nielsen walks out of her home to speak to the media on Monday in Alexandria, Virginia.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen resigned on Sunday evening, ending the tenure of the administrator of Trump’s most brutal policy since entering office: family separation. Apparently, she needed to step aside for somebody less squeamish.

CBS News reported on Sunday that the move was part of a massive immigration overhaul, spearheaded by Stephen Miller, that included the withdrawal of Trump’s nominee for Immigration and Customs Enforcement  director because the president wanted to go in a “tougher” direction. On Friday, at a border event with Nielsen, Trump declared that “asylum people” are gang members and part of a “scam.”

“The system is full. We can’t take you anymore. Whether it’s asylum. Whether it’s anything you want. It’s illegal immigration,” the president said. Of course, seeking asylum in this country is by definition legal, unilateral declarations from the executive notwithstanding. Two days after this announcement, Nielsen was out.

It is no secret that Trump’s relationship with the secretary has been charged from the start. Nielsen famously threatened to resign last spring after reportedly being reluctant to sign the memo ordering routine family separations at the border. When the president excoriated her at a Cabinet meeting, she drafted a resignation letter, but she changed her mind and ultimately ordered the “zero tolerance” policy that would lead to the separation of thousands of children at the border. Over the spring and summer, she initially denied publicly that such a policy even existed, then gradually became its staunchest defender. “We do not have a policy of separating families at the border,” she said on Twitter last June. “Period.” That was untrue. Yet she persistently and robustly liedincluding to Congress—about the origins and scope of the family separation policy at the border, as recently as this past January. That said, it’s fairly clear that she is now setting up the redemption narrative about her heroism in the face of Trump’s relentless cruelty.

The New York Times’ Maggie Haberman reported on Twitter that Nielsen was concerned about “how awful life would/will be for her on the outside after defending [Trump’s] policies for a long [time].” After she became the face of family separation and children in cages, public life did become tricky for her. She was famously heckled by protesters in a Mexican restaurant last June at the height of the backlash over separations.

Nielsen undoubtedly would have appreciated seeing her mentor, John Kelly, go from the guy willing to lie and shame the family of a dead Green Beret and lie to protect an accused wife beater, to a national hero when he finally left the Trump administration around Christmas. The temptation to find some filament of heroism in Kelly’s parting shots—his resignation letter and exit interviews flamed the president for flawed policies—is a reflection of how desperate the country has become for heroics.

Kelly had claimed he stayed on this rotten ship for so long as an act of patriotic duty, but he was no hero. As Jamelle Bouie put it at the time, he was simply Trump but with better manners:

If there’s any lesson to take from John Kelly’s tenure in the White House, it’s that the appearance of moderation is not moderation. And while official Washington might pine for someone to take the reins of the administration—for someone to truly be an “adult in the room”—the Kelly experience shows that this is overrated. What matters is the ethos of the administration, and that flows inexorably from the man at the top.

I give it two weeks before Nielsen tries to float the same kind of redemption narrative. Already the unnamed sources are suggesting that she was a principled brake on Trump’s worst impulses. As the New York Times reported last night, Trump is really nuts:

The president called Ms. Nielsen at home early in the mornings to demand that she take action to stop migrants from entering the country, including doing things that were clearly illegal, such as blocking all migrants from seeking asylum. She repeatedly noted the limitations imposed on her department by federal laws, court settlements and international obligations. Those responses only infuriated Mr. Trump further.

New leaks similarly suggest that for months Trump had pushed to reinstate a family separation policy that has been enjoined in the courts. Nielsen’s alleged defiance of that demand to openly flout a court order appears to be another source of her heroic resistance work. In other words, Nielsen’s alleged heroism seems to lie chiefly in the fact that she didn’t break international or domestic law fast enough to mollify a president who doesn’t believe in international or domestic law.

While there is a roiling legal question about who is rightfully in line to succeed her as acting DHS chief, we know at least a couple of things about Trump’s proposed candidate, Kevin McAleenan. Chiefly, he actually authored the policy memo advising Nielsen to go ahead with the family separation policy. Also importantly, he has publicly disavowed the very policy he crafted and is now reportedly saying he’d be open to reinstating a version of that policy. Family separation 2.0, NBC News reports, “would give migrant parents the option between being separated from their children or bringing their children with them into long term detention.” The clinical name for this is “binary choice,” because it would apparently allow the administration the “binary choice” between violating a court order against separating families and violating the Flores Agreement that dictates how long undocumented immigrant children can be kept in detention before being released.

So it certainly sounds like McAleenan may be the perfect pick for a president who no longer wishes to be constrained by the rule of law at the border. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi put it this way on Sunday night: “It is deeply alarming that the Trump administration official who put children in cages is reportedly resigning because she is not extreme enough for the White House’s liking.”

That she will likely be followed by someone far worse hardly makes Nielsen—who signed off on McAleenan’s policy, lied about it repeatedly, but wouldn’t reinstate it after it had been enjoined in court—the darling of the law and order set. Like Rex Tillerson, Jeff Sessions, Kelly, and multiple others, Nielsen seems less to have had an ethical red line of lawlessness that she wouldn’t cross than to have been finally fired for declining to cross one of those lines. There is a difference. And whether lying about monstrous acts is better than owning them outright is an ethical calculation for future historians to sort out.

There are now a couple of ways that Nielsen’s career and public life will play out. One way was suggested on Monday by CNN’s Jeffrey Toobin, who hazarded that Nielsen will forever be tarnished by her complicity with the cruelest public action taken by the Trump administration. “Here is this woman who was a reasonably admired bureaucrat,” Toobin observed. “For the rest of her life people will look at her and think, ‘Oh, that’s the woman who put children in cages.’ ” Maybe. Or perhaps she will be scooped up as a Fox News pundit or given a sweet academic post from which to “explain” the Trump age to future historians. She will leak about the president’s infirmities and sit on a vaunted stage at Davos someday to slyly complain about him. Because whoever comes next will surely be “tougher”—which is to say even more vicious—she will seek to be remembered as the temperate one.

We should not forget, though, the monstrousness of the policy Nielsen implemented when it was her turn. Reports this weekend suggest that the government may take up to two years to even identify the thousands of traumatized children who were taken from their families as a result of that horrific policy and its mangled planning and execution. Nielsen will forever be the face of that policy because she found it useful, precisely until it was not. To borrow from Bouie’s construction, Nielsen was Trump but with more obfuscation. If she wants to clear her name, it shouldn’t come by way of press leaks and corporate boards and winking asides about Trump’s volatility. It should come with a full and honest reckoning about what she was willing to oversee and why she lied about it. Being fired by Trump isn’t an act of Resistance. It’s the inevitable outcome of a job in this White House. And being infinitesimally less compromised than whoever follows you isn’t a redemption story. It’s the thing of nightmares.