At the conclusion of more than four hours of testimony Tuesday before an often hostile Senate Judiciary Committee, Kirstjen Nielsen, the new secretary of Homeland Security, slowly gathered up her papers, shared a few laughing words with Arizona Republican Jeff Flake (the last senator in the room) and confidently exited surrounded by an armada of aides.
Depending on her level of self-awareness and the degree of flattery from her staffers, Nielsen may have nurtured the belief that she aced her Capitol Hill exam. After all, the loyal Cabinet secretary avoided saying almost anything controversial, even when pressed by Democrats over Donald Trump’s doubly confirmed reference to “shithole countries” during last Thursday’s White House immigration meeting that she attended.
But to achieve the requisite level of blandness under oath, Nielsen had to display a lack of curiosity, faulty memory and demographic ignorance unmatched since Sean Spicer left the White House briefing room.
Nielsen testified that she has never met a Dreamer, even though the fate of the 690,000 immigrants registered under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program is the central issue in the fight to avert a midnight Friday government shutdown.
And so it continued …
Unable to recall Trump’s precise wording (“I don’t dispute the president was using tough language”) at the White House meeting that has dominated the news, Nielsen insisted that she never discussed the president’s rant with anyone afterward. Not even her mentor and predecessor at Homeland Security, White House chief of staff John Kelly.
Even more bizarre was Nielsen’s logic-defying insistence that when Trump highlighted Norway as an ideal source of immigrants, the president was not making a racial comparison to Africa and Haiti.
Hearing Nielsen burble on about hard-working Norwegians, Vermont Democrat Pat Leahy asked mockingly, “Norway is a predominantly white country, isn’t it?” Sensing the trap, Nielsen tried to pretend that she was a fifth grader who forgot to do her geography homework, saying, “I actually do not know that, sir, but I imagine that is the case.”
Watch: Leahy Questions Nielsen About Trump Comment
Presumably, the Cabinet secretary also imagines — but doesn’t know for certain — that China is a predominantly Asian country.
In her opening statement, Nielsen flogged a dubious new government study — conducted at the request of Trump — claiming that 73 percent of U.S. residents convicted of “international terrorism-related charges” since 2001 were foreign born.
To reach this seemingly frightening percentage, the government first had to exclude anything that smacked of domestic terrorism like the nine worshippers killed by Dylann Roof in the 2015 church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina. Nielsen was also vague about what beyond a “nexus” to international terrorism was required to be included in the study.
When Leahy asked for data connecting this study to the countries highlighted by Trump’s Muslim ban, Nielsen responded, “I don’t have the information at hand, sir.” While the “sir” was a nice deferential touch, Nielsen was, in effect, admitting that, for all she knew, the 73 percent foreign-born terrorists might have all come from Norway.
During her testimony, Nielsen also took refuge in the traditional gambit of cornered bureaucrats — the use of benign-sounding acronyms to describe controversial policies.
Pressed by California Democrat Dianne Feinstein on her department’s treatment of children arriving alone at the border, Nielsen responded, “UACs are a big problem. … We have seen a 30-percent increase in just the last few months.”
A guide for the perplexed: UACs stand for “Unaccompanied Children.”
Nielsen did allow herself two brief moments of Trumpian heresy, both in response to artful questioning by Democrat Richard Blumenthal, a former Connecticut state attorney general. As a rule, the most effective interrogators on Capitol Hill tend to be legislators who, in prior incarnations, spent time in courtrooms.
Asked whether Russia tried to interfere with the 2016 election on a massive scale, Nielsen said, “I have no reason to doubt that.” And she also agreed with a crisp “yes, sir” to Blumenthal’s assertion that Robert Mueller’s investigation is neither a hoax nor a witch hunt.
As she replays in her mind her first tough grilling since she was confirmed by the Senate in early December, Nielsen may take comfort in the way that she supported Mueller and acknowledged Russia’s meddlesome role in 2016. But, if she has any sense of honesty, she should also be embarrassed by the rhetorical contortions necessary to serve in a prominent position under Trump.
The TV moment of the hearing came when Cory Booker — undoubtedly thinking about the 2020 Democratic primaries — excoriated Nielsen: “When ignorance and bigotry is allied with power, it is a dangerous force in our country. Your silence and your amnesia is complicity.”
Watch: Booker Says Nielsen is ‘Complicit’
Of course, the New Jersey Democrat’s passionate response to Trump’s attack on African and Caribbean countries was straight out of the Joe Biden playbook on Senate logorrhea as Booker talked his way through virtually his entire 10-minute question period.
Politically, the most relevant moment in the hearings came when South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham, an ardent supporter of immigration reform, lectured Nielsen (and by extension Trump) on the concept of “leverage.”
As Graham explained, Trump’s current offer to the Democrats of legal protection for the Dreamers in exchange for his entire immigration agenda (including full funding of his cockamamie wall) is laughable because the Democrats have “leverage.” The big-stick threat of a government shutdown is a limited weapon when voters know that the Republicans control the White House and Congress.
Whatever happens with the budget brinksmanship, Kirstjen Nielsen earned a distinction Tuesday likely to be mentioned in all future profiles and interviews. She is the Cabinet member who didn’t know for sure that Norway is filled with white people.
Roll Call columnist Walter Shapiro is a veteran of Politics Daily, USA Today, Time, Newsweek and The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.