“I have determined,” Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen wrote in her resignation letter Sunday night, “that it is the right time for me to step aside.”
And how did she come to this determination?
Well, maybe it was that her boss, the president, had just demanded her resignation and then tweeted news of her ouster to his nearly 60 million followers.
This was vintage Nielsen: boldly asserting the dubious in the face of the obvious. During her rocky tenure, she secured the homeland against facts and decency alike as she struggled in vain to suck up to President Trump and thereby keep her job.
It ended badly. It always does. Trump publicly mocked Attorney General Jeff Sessions before firing him. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was reportedly fired while sitting on the toilet. Trump changes Cabinet secretaries like suits and will soon have temporary appointees in half a dozen Cabinet-level jobs. An honest help-wanted ad for a Trump Cabinet position would go like this:
“Flailing administration seeks Cabinet secretary willing to sacrifice dignity for employer’s vanity. No relevant experience needed. Successful candidate must be morally flexible. Familiarity with abusive personalities a plus. Willingness to be publicly humiliated required. Employee will be fired in about 12 months and thereafter be permanently unemployable. Non-disclosure agreement mandatory. Interested candidates should contact the prison warden.”
Yet the 46-year-old Nielsen, who reportedly never supervised more than 15 people before taking over the 240,000-person department, thought she’d be different. And in a sense she was: Nobody debased herself quite as often as Nielsen did in her quest to keep the job, defending Trump after the “s—-hole countries” and Charlottesville scandals, enduring frequent rebukes from Trump and leaks about her imminent firing, embracing his incendiary language and enduring his extralegal instincts, swallowing her moral misgivings to embrace the family-separation policy (while denying any such policy existed), and implausibly claiming that children weren’t being put in cages. Excerpts from a hearing last month:
Lawmaker: “Are we still using cages for children?”
Nielsen: “Sir, we don’t use cages. …”
Lawmaker: “I’ve seen the cages. I just want you to admit that the cages exist.”
Nielsen: “Sir, they’re not cages. …”
Another lawmaker: “What is a chain-link fence enclosed into a chamber on a concrete floor? … Is that a cage?”
Nielsen: “It’s a detention space.”
By that time, Nielsen had already made her famous counterfactual assertion: “We do not have a policy of separating families at the border. Period.” She later stood next to Trump as he signed an order rescinding the policy they supposedly didn’t have.
When multiple witnesses described a meeting at which Trump said he wanted more immigrants from Norway and called Haiti and African nations “s—-hole countries,” Nielsen, who attended the meeting, said, “I don’t recall him saying the exact phrase.”
At a hearing, a senator asked her rhetorically, “Norway is a predominantly white country, isn’t it?”
“I actually do not know that, sir,” Nielsen replied, though allowing she could “imagine” that to be true.
Another thing Nielsen professed not to know: the conclusion by the U.S. intelligence community that Russia interfered in the 2016 elections to boost Trump. “I’m not aware of that,” she said. At another point, she said she did not know how many children had been detained at the southern border. Yet another time, she declined to contradict Trump’s false claim that there were “never so many apprehensions ever in our history” at the border as there are now.
So dedicated was Nielsen to avoiding any contradiction of Trump that she echoed his view that there were “very fine people” on both sides in Charlottesville. “I think what’s important about that conversation is, it’s not that one side is right, one side is wrong,” Nielsen said of the white supremacists and counterdemonstrators.
No amount of public disgrace could deter her from serving the president’s whims. During the family-separation imbroglio, she dined at a Mexican restaurant, where hecklers pounced. Nancy Pelosi called her actions “morally reprehensible.” Even her high-school classmates called for her resignation.
The indignities piled up. Inside the White House, Stephen Miller, 33, and Jared Kushner, 38, reportedly agitated for her ouster. Trump let her twist in the wind, saying in November he’d make a decision about her “shortly.” Nielsen redoubled her suck-up efforts.
A month ago, Politico reported success: Her relationship with Trump had “turned a corner,” and “cabinet colleagues and Republican allies now describe her as a rising star” who has “managed to forge a stable relationship with Trump.” Said one source: Everything “has totally calmed down.”
Dana Milbank is a columnist for The Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter, @Milbank.