Nielsen Implemented Unethical Policies, But Drew the Line at Illegal

On Sunday, Kirstjen Nielsen resigned from her position as Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, after less than a year and a half in that job. During her tenure, Nielsen demonstrated that she had no problems crossing ethical lines. For example, she actively planned the administration’s family separation policy, and then openly lied about it to Congress. The question becomes, after months of engaging in unethical behavior, why did she decide to resign now?

It is very likely that Stephen Miller, the man who is at the helm of Trump’s xenophobic immigration policies, was undermining her.

There’s definitely a larger shakeup abreast being led by Stephen Miller and the staunch right wing within the administration,” said a person close to Nielsen, who resigned Sunday after months of pressure from a president who felt she was not tough enough on illegal immigration. “They failed with the courts and with Congress and now they’re eating their own.”

The president himself publicly humiliated Nielsen just last week. On the same day that she signed a memorandum of understanding with Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador to cooperate on stemming the tide of migrants from those countries, he cut off all U.S. aid to them.

But in the New York Times report on Nielsen’s resignation, this statement stood out.

The president called Ms. Nielsen at home early in the mornings to demand that she take action to stop migrants from entering the country, including doing things that were clearly illegal, such as blocking all migrants from seeking asylum. She repeatedly noted the limitations imposed on her department by federal laws, court settlements and international obligations.

In other words, while Nielsen had demonstrated that she was willing to act unethically as Trump’s Secretary of Homeland Security, she drew the line at engaging in activities that are blatantly illegal. That makes sense in light of the fact that the president has recently talked about ending asylum altogether and suggested that we should get rid of the judges who adjudicate those cases.

Nielsen isn’t the only member of this administration that Miller is targeting. He appears to have played a role in Trump’s decision to withdraw the nomination of Ronald Vitiello to be U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director and is going after Lee Francis Cissna, director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. While both of them have been supporters of the president’s immigration policies, apparently they aren’t willing to go far enough.

As the person close to Nielsen said in that quote above, Trump and Miller have failed in both the courts and Congress to enact the more draconian elements of their immigration plans, even as what they have done has been a miserable failure. The president is once again threatening to shut down the Mexican border, but all of this suggests that there are other plans underway that even Nielsen judged would cross the line. After what she has demonstrated a willingness to do, that is a foreboding sign.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.