Homeland Security shakeup: What's next

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Speed Read

What’s happening: A clutch of senior Department of Homeland Security officials left their posts in recent days amid an apparent shakeup.

Kirstjen Nielsen, head of DHS, abruptly resigned Sunday following reports that the president was frustrated at the increase in illegal crossings at the southern border. She had replaced John Kelly in the role in July 2017, after he took the job as President Trump’s chief of staff.

Nielsen quit after the White House withdrew the nomination of longtime border official Ron Vitiello to lead the U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement agency. Trump cited a desire to go “in a tougher direction.” Ralph Alles, the head of the U.S. Secret Service, left his position on Monday. And Claire Grady, the acting No. 2 at DHS, also resigned.

Why people are debating it: Critics of Trump’s immigration rhetoric worry that the removal of the DHS’s top leadership will lead to even more extreme policies. There had long been rumors of tension between Nielsen and Trump, who some believe is guided by White House adviser and immigration hardliner Stephen Miller.

The departure of Nielsen — considered a hardliner herself for overseeing the administration’s controversial family separation policy — has led to a concern that Miller’s policy views have become ascendent. Trump had reportedly raged at Nielsen for her refusal to close the border after his repeated threats to do so.

What happens next: President Trump’s statements in the wake of Nielsen’s resignation have added confusion to the administration’s immigration policy. Trump denied planning to reinstitute large-scale separations of parents and children at the southern border. Yet the president has also said that detaining illegal immigrants and removing their children was an effective deterrent. (Nielsen reportedly was reluctant to bring back the policy, which she had initially defended.)

The shakeup at DHS may foreshadow a more hardline immigration and border policy. And there’s renewed attention on Stephen Miller and the role he may play in shaping the administration’s strategy.


Kirstjen Nielsen had the toughest job in the government.

“The DHS is a sprawling giant of 22 agencies that merged together in the wake of 9/11. The department’s 240,000 employees handle everything from hurricanes to cyber security to border security to terrorism. … Kirstjen Nielsen was neither a political heavyweight nor had she served in senior policy or military roles when she took over DHS. … She became Trump’s scapegoat for the rising number of migrant families trying to cross the southern border in recent months. Many of those families are fleeing the violence and economic travail of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, and there isn’t much that any DHS secretary can do to try to stem the flow of migrants willing to leave everything behind to seek a better future in the United States.” — Peter Bergen, CNN

Kirstjen Nielsen was the worst.

“Of all the charlatans, sycophants and moral sellouts surrounding Donald Trump, no one comes close to Kirstjen Nielsen. … No, there is no one quite like the departing secretary of homeland security, who forced some of the world’s most vulnerable people to pay any price and bear any burden to assure the survival of her own career. … But Nielsen has deployed all the skills of a careerist technocrat to oversee the two greatest scandals of the entire human misfortune that is the Trump presidency: a death toll of more than 3,000 in the criminally negligent aftermath of Hurricane Maria, and tens of thousands of children illegally imprisoned and forcibly separated from their parents at the southern border.” — Richard Wolffe, Guardian

But her replacement could be even more hardline.

“It’s no secret that Mr. Trump had a problem with Ms. Nielsen, whom he considered “weak” on matters of border security. The president and Stephen Miller, his hard-line immigration adviser, have long grumbled privately about the secretary’s insufficiently brutal approach to the surge in migrant families across the border. … Whoever takes Ms. Nielsen’s place, it seems likely that greater influence will be exerted by Mr. Miller, who inspires and reinforces Mr. Trump’s harshest impulses on immigrants and immigration. As the president becomes increasingly agitated about the border situation, Mr. Miller is said to be aggressively pushing to stock the administration with like-minded hard-liners.” — New York Times editorial

It’s Trump’s fault that the border is a mess.

“Kirstjen Nielsen … isn’t responsible for the chaos at the border. More than two years into his presidency, the blame is solely on Trump. It’s Trump who promised to build a wall. It’s Trump who railed against the gang members, drug traffickers, and rapists taking advantage of lax border security to enter the country. It’s Trump who won a national election, against all odds, in large part for declaring that he could bring order to our jungle of an immigration system. And it’s Trump who has squandered all of his political capital, plus two years of his party fully in control of Congress, on a lazy tax cut and an ill-fated attempt to repeal Obamacare.” — Eddie Scarry, Washington Examiner

The moment that doomed Kirstjen Nielsen’s future with Trump.

“The split between the two was never about toughness, but about what can and what can’t be done to stop something that has been occurring for as long as human civilization: the movement of people across borders in search of something better. … But it’s more accurate to say that the seeds of what would grow into this dysfunctional relationship were planted … in December 2016, when Trump chose [John] Kelly – a retired Marine general – to head DHS. Nielsen was his deputy. No Kelly, no Nielsen. It was Kelly who made the statement Nielsen agreed to at her confirmation, about how DHS was “not going to build a wall from sea to shining sea” on the U.S.-Mexico border.” — Ruben Navarrette Jr., Daily Beast

Who’s left to say no to Trump?

“There were limits to Nielsen’s embrace of Trump’s immigration policies. She pushed back on his demands to break the law to stop migrants from entering the country, according to The Times, and repeatedly reminded the president of ‘the limitations imposed on her department by federal laws, court settlements and international obligations.’ In almost any other administration, this would be unremarkable. It simply means Nielsen took her job and its legal obligations seriously — what we would expect from any civil servant. But Trump is unusual among modern presidents for his routine elevation of people who lack that basic sense of public ethics. If regular pressure to break the law was part of Nielsen’s decision to leave the administration, then her departure illustrates how any belief in the public good, no matter how slight, is incompatible with working for this president, even if you share his views.” — Jamelle Bouie, New York Times

Nielsen’s reputation: ‘The woman who put children in cages.’

“Kirstjen Nielsen, I think, is a great example of what happens when you go to work for Donald Trump,” Toobin said. “He is the great reputation killer. Here is this woman who was a reasonably admired bureaucrat. For the rest of her life people will look at her and think, ‘Oh, that’s the woman who put children in cages.’” — Jeffrey Toobin, CNN legal analyst, The Hill

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