OPINION — As a result of the natural tumult of politics along the corridors of power, Washington has always been filled with ambitious men and women plotting their next career move. This is Cinderella City where a few adroit steps can propel an anonymous staffer to the Cabinet in a golden coach.
At first glance, that is the story of 46-year-old Kirstjen Nielsen, who is nearing her first anniversary as secretary of Homeland Security. Championed by Donald Trump’s chief of staff, John Kelly — for whom she had worked at DHS and in the White House — Nielsen was put in charge in late 2017 of a sprawling Cabinet department with nearly a quarter of a million employees.
The problem, of course, for Nielsen is that working for Trump is never a fairy tale. If news reports about Trump’s postelection tantrums are true, then Nielsen may not even last out the week in the Cabinet. And when she departs, she will be mostly remembered as the smiling public face of the heartless family-separation policy at the border.
Nielsen’s legacy might be seen through a different lens if she were naturally an anti-immigration zealot like top White House aide Stephen Miller. But prior to entering the Trump administration, she appeared to be a mainstream Bush Republican on immigration, even contributing to a 2016 sympathetic Davos report on the worldwide refugee crisis.
Judging from her public record, Nielsen, like many men in public life before her, squandered her judgment and her reputation on the altar of ambition. Desperate to cling to her Cabinet job, she avidly defended hard-line immigration policies that were justified by little more than Trumpian rage.
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A skilled player
Before Trump, Nielsen had played the Washington career game with skill and brio.
She parlayed Capitol Hill experience (working for Florida GOP Sen. Connie Mack), a legal degree and two years at a corporate law firm into a junior staff job in the George W. Bush administration in 2002. She advised the fledgling Transportation Security Administration on legislative affairs and then moved to a council within Homeland Security that helped plan the federal response to disasters like hurricanes.
When she left the Bush administration in 2007, Nielsen had a blot on her record, since she was one of many officials blamed for the government’s maladroit handling of Hurricane Katrina. But like a true Washington professional, she adroitly reinvented herself as an expert in an entirely new area, cybersecurity.
She burnished her bipartisan credentials by joining a consulting firm founded by former Clinton national security adviser Sandy Berger. And then in 2012, she started her own cybersecurity firm, where she managed 15 employees, which was the extent of her administrative experience before entering the Cabinet.
During the 2016 campaign cycle, Nielsen had been a loyal Bushie, contributing $2,500 to Jeb’s super PAC, Right to Rise. But unlike many Bush alums, Nielsen volunteered to work for the incoming Trump team on the transition at Homeland Security. During the run-up to the inauguration, she met Kelly, Trump’s choice to run the department.
Nielsen had originally been angling for an undersecretary’s job at a Homeland Security division that handles cybersecurity. But when the White House vetoed Kelly’s first choice as his chief of staff, the retired Marine Corps general turned to Nielsen.
A Trumpian turnabout
When she was nominated to succeed Kelly as the head of Homeland Security, Nielsen was attacked by a far-right chorus for being, in the words of Ann Coulter, an “open-borders zealot.” During her 11 months on the job, Nielsen has worked tirelessly to prove these ultra-conservative critics wrong.
No Trump statement or policy ever triggered an audible public dissent from Nielsen. She insisted to the Senate Judiciary Committee in January that the president had never referred to African nations as “shithole countries.” During the same hearing, she even refused to confirm that Trump’s favorite source country for new immigrants, Norway, had an overwhelmingly white population.
Just two years after she signed her name to the World Economic Forum paper on the world refugee crisis, Nielsen worked overtime to worsen the plight of the desperate.
In January, she rescinded the right of 200,000 Salvadorians to reside legally in this country. And in June, after Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced his “zero tolerance” policy at the border, Nielsen blithely denied that the Trump administration was handling family separations in a different manner than prior administrations.
Nielsen is blessed with the Washington gift of bureaucratic blandness — the ability to smother any topic under a pillow of boring verbiage.
Questioned at a meeting of the Council on Foreign Relations earlier this month, she still refused to take responsibility for the continued family separations at the border: “I would say that at DHS we enforce the law. And unfortunately some parents chose to break the law and enter the country in a way that did not go to port of entry.”
She also echoed the president’s alarmist pre-election hysteria about the caravan of impoverished asylum seekers: “We’ve also seen criminals in this flow. We have seen gang members. … There were kidnappings under a false belief that if you had a child you would be able to come into the United States and stay.”
But Nielsen’s loyalty, harsh immigration policies and copycat rhetoric were apparently not enough for Trump in his hunt for scapegoats. So with Nielsen about to follow Jeff Sessions off the plank of the Trump pirate ship, the highest-ranking woman in the administration might be wishing today that she had stuck to something safe like cybersecurity.
Walter Shapiro has covered the last 10 presidential campaigns. He is also a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU and a lecturer in political science at Yale. Follow him on Twitter@MrWalterShapiro.