In a few days, Kirstjen Nielsen, the former secretary of homeland security best known for separating migrant children from their families and detaining them in inhumane conditions, is scheduled to speak at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Summit in Washington.
Hillary Clinton was set to speak at the summit, too. On Friday, however, she removed herself from the event, citing a scheduling conflict.
But a person close to Clinton’s decision-making process told Slate that she had decided to drop out after hearing that Nielsen was also on the docket. “We work with a lot of activists who are trying to do their best to improve this horrible situation down at the border,” the person said, citing Clinton’s support of RAICES and other organizations that advocate for asylees and immigrants. “At the end of the day, it’s an easy decision. You have to side with them.”
The person said one of those activists alerted Clinton to Nielsen’s slot on the schedule earlier this week, after which Clinton’s team notified Fortune that she would no longer be attending the event. Friday evening, Clinton’s name and headshot were removed from the summit’s website.
“While there’s an argument to be made to hear all voices, there are those who fall outside of what should be the band of acceptable behavior and public policymaking,” the person said, describing the actions of Nielsen’s Department of Homeland Security as “one of the most horrific things that we’ve had to bear witness to within our borders in modern political history.”
The filmmaker and activist Dream Hampton also canceled her appearance at the event. There are still about 100 speakers slated to appear at the summit: mostly business executives, plus a handful of journalists, scholars, and elected officials, including Anita Hill and presidential candidate Rep. Tulsi Gabbard. Neither Hill nor Gabbard replied to requests for comment.
More than 51,000 people have signed a petition asking Fortune to remove Nielsen from the agenda. “Fortune strongly believes that interviewing Nielsen—and other key figures from the private and public sector, however controversial—is important journalism and provides us an opportunity to ask substantive questions in front of our viewers and readers,” Fortune communications manager Alison Klooster said in a statement.
When asked why Fortune placed Nielsen’s interview under the umbrella of Most Powerful Women—a brand associated with cheering on female leaders and advocating for gender parity in business and government—rather than interviewing her for a regular news story, Klooster explained that the summit will allow Fortune to “reach a much greater audience for this crucial topic than we might have with a straight news piece.” The three-day summit is only open to Most Powerful Women members, who pay $13,500 each year for the ability to attend five events, but Nielsen’s interview will be livestreamed and made available to broadcast news outlets.
With both an exceptionally high rate of staff turnover and an exceptionally indefensible record of lies, corruption, and racist policies, the Trump administration has generated a sizable cohort of ex-appointees who are currently scrambling to reputation-launder their way back into respectable society. A coalition of progressive organizations called Restore Public Trust has been urging universities not to hire ex–Trump officials like former press secretary Sean Spicer, who, after leaving the White House, did a visiting fellowship at Harvard before his turn as a harmless goofball on Dancing With the Stars.
In an open letter, Restore Public Trust also asked U.S. corporations not to hire Nielsen and other officials who worked on the family separation policy. (She recently rejoined the Trump administration as a member of the National Infrastructure Advisory Council.) But since Nielsen resigned from her Cabinet position in April, her friends and political allies have been working to present her as a mere functionary who happened to serve under an uncommonly cruel boss.
Tuesday’s event may give her a chance to make the case herself. Nielsen will be interviewed by PBS NewsHour’s Amna Nawaz in a conversation billed as “The Hard Questions”; the summit agenda says their 15-minute discussion, which will include questions from the audience, will cover “the horror of family separation, border security, and more.” The use of the word horror here suggests that nobody thinks this interview will be neutral on Nielsen’s record of human rights violations—not Fortune, not summit attendees, not Nielsen. “We included it because it’s true,” Klooster said when I asked her about this subjective description of the policy that Nielsen directed, then lied about under oath.
Still, it’s easy to see why Nielsen agreed to the interview, even with the promise of some public criticism. Being sandwiched between a “diversity and inclusion”–themed networking lunch and a panel on women running tech companies, Nielsen can recontextualize herself from a professional child abuser to an elite-schmoozing stateswoman who deserves a chance to explain herself.
Public figures may say newsy things at events like these, but they aren’t presented as venues for rigorous journalism. When the New Yorker invited Steve Bannon to speak at last year’s New Yorker Festival in conversation with editor David Remnick, the publication offered to pay him an honorarium and cover his travel expenses, something most major print outlets would never do for a source for a news story. When the magazine disinvited Bannon after other speakers dropped out in protest, Remnick promised that if he decided to interview Bannon at a later date, it would be “in a more traditionally journalistic setting … not on stage.”
Fortune advertises the Most Powerful Women Summit as “the world’s most extraordinary leadership community” assembled for “wide-ranging conversations that inspire and deliver practical advice,” and the publication’s annual Most Powerful Women list is framed in the language of “progress” and “equality.” The summits themselves are glossy vehicles for corporate promotion. This year, breakfast panels are hosted by Deloitte, Salesforce, and Johnson & Johnson. Female executives from Pinterest, Best Buy, AMD, and Amazon are set to give one-on-one onstage interviews about how great their companies are doing.
The agenda also promotes an interview with Lockheed Martin CEO Marillyn Hewson using language that could have been ripped from a drone commercial: “Lockheed Martin is charged with building the technology that will keep us safe on land, sea and sky—and even in space.”
There’s no real way to applaud Hill’s advocacy against sexual harassment, marvel at Hewson’s skillful war profiteering, and condemn Nielsen’s human rights abuses at a single event without some glaring tonal incongruities. The fact that all of these speakers are appearing at a summit celebrating female leadership illuminates both the moral vacuum at the center of corporate feminism and the ease with which people in power can insulate themselves from the terror they visit upon the powerless. It’s hard to imagine any event further removed from the lived realities of the children whose lives will be forever marked by the trauma Nielsen directed, or the 40 Yemeni children who died last summer when their school bus was hit by a laser-guided Lockheed Martin bomb, than a networking conference with a $13,500 price tag.
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