Kirstjen Nielsen and the Futility of Restraining Trump
Nielsen was not a Trump loyalist. She worked on homeland-security issues in the George W. Bush White House, making her a good test for the restraint camp: She’s a professional bureaucrat and an expert in her field, rather than a Trumpist ideologue. Yet she leaves the administration inextricably associated with the most publicly reviled of the Trump administration’s many unpopular policies. Jeffrey Toobin summed up the damage to Nielsen on CNN: “[Trump] 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.’”
It’s remarkable how little Nielsen has to show for that. Trump’s border policies have been ineffective in stalling the flow of migrants to the border (though as I have written, it’s not entirely clear that was their goal). Despite the policy of family separations, which the administration believed would deter asylum seekers, asylum claims soared in 2018 versus 2017 (though there’s no telling how that number might have been different without the separations). Notwithstanding the pomp of Trump’s visit to Calexico, California, last week, no new sections of his beloved border wall have been built.
At times, Nielsen seemed resistant to the Trump agenda. In late 2018, Trump was reportedly close to firing her because of her reluctance to impose directives she believed were illegal. Nielsen quickly embarked on a campaign of tough talk that seemed to convince Trump she was a hardliner, and he backed down. The problem was that to prove her loyalty, she had to hug Trump harder, thus further reducing any ability she had to restrain him.
The argument for the inside strategy was that, eventually, Trump would come to understand his job better. In the case of immigration, that didn’t mean trying to convince him out of his hardline approach—Nielsen seems to have largely shared the president’s view that a drastic and quick reduction in illegal immigration and asylum seekers was necessary and possible—but to steer him away from the pointless and/or illegal tactics he favored and toward more effective ones that could achieve the same goals.
But Trump seems to have learned little over the last two years. He continues to prattle on about the wall. During his Calexico visit, his comments suggested he incorrectly believes that the Flores settlement, the 1997 legal agreement that limits the detainment of children, is the name of a judge. According to NBC News and CNN, Trump has recently been pushing for DHS to reinstitute family separations, even though courts have repeatedly ruled they are illegal, and even though he claimed, when he halted the practice in June 2018, that “I didn’t like the sight or the feeling of families being separated.”