US Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen has become the latest casualty in the presidential version of The Apprentice reality show that President Donald J. Trump once hosted on national television. The catch line for that show was, “You’re fired!” And Trump is now hosting it from the White House, although it only reaches TV through third party news sources and is a drama that is being staged in the only relative privacy of the presidential cabinet. It is clear from news sources and Nielsen’s own comments that she didn’t quit last weekend, but was forced out of office by the president, whom she described as “increasingly unhinged” regarding immigration policy. And the shake-up at Homeland Security has continued since Nielsen quit under pressure last Sunday.
As the story is being pieced together from off-the-record statements by concerned inside government sources to the mainstream media, we are learning that Nielsen’s departure was only the first major symptom of a sweeping purge that the president is carrying out in the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and related agencies. The symbolic beheadings continued this week with the dismissal of Secret Service Director Randolph Alles, who, according to the White House “will be leaving shortly.”
The story has implications that are complex and far-reaching, but that can be summarized in a few questions that those working in the Homeland Security Department of Donald Trump must ask themselves if they hope to keep their jobs: Am I willing to shut down the border wherever and whenever the president tells me to? Am I willing to snatch children from their mother’s arms and cage them? Am I willing to send those children off to parts unknown without a clue of how to get them back to their families? Am I willing to break the law in order to do the president’s bidding? Nielsen appears to have been willing to do some but not all of these things. In the main, she wasn’t willing to break the law to close the border, or to ignore judicial decisions regarding immigration cases, and her refusal to do so was sufficient for the president to fire her.
Despite Nielsen’s having garnered a dark reputation as a Trump enforcer—who has overseen mass detention of asylum-seekers, separation of would-be immigrant families at the border, the tear-gassing of migrants including mothers and children on the frontier between Mexico and the US, the scattering of immigrant children separated from their parents to other parts of the country, the deaths of several children in detention from apparent neglect and the “misplacement” of hundreds of children in government or foster care—the president is understood to have sought Nielsen’s resignation because she was “too soft” on immigration.
|Mother and child detained at the border|
Following this latest departure, Trump’s cabinet now includes four acting department heads. With a turnover rate of around 66 percent, Trump has hosted the largest number of top-slot cabinet departures in recent memory: 14 only three months into his third year. His closest competitor for cabinet departures was Bill Clinton, with 12 for his entire first term. Obama oversaw the departures of nine of his cabinet members in his first four years. The lowest turnover by far was in the cabinet of George W. Bush with only four departures during his first four years in office.
Nielsen was one of the better-prepared of Trump’s staff members, having graduated from the Georgetown School of Foreign Service and from University of Virginia Law. Apparently with an eye to diplomacy, she also majored in Japanese Studies at Nazan University in Nagoya, Japan. But her career early on turned to national security when she served under George W. Bush on the White House Homeland Security Council as Director for Prevention, Preparedness and Response.
After leaving the Bush administration in 2008, Nielsen didn’t continue in government but turned instead to private contracting. She made herself known as the founder and president of Sunesis Consulting. But she was listed as the firm's only employee, and her personal cellphone number served as the company switchboard. Despite this skeletal profile, during the Obama administration she won a federal contract for an initial sum of 450,000 dollars to “provide policy and legislation, technical writing, and organizational development” for use by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
She also later served as a senior member of the Resilience Task Force under the Center for Cyber & Homeland Security Committee at Georgetown University, and was a member of the Global Risks Report Advisory Board at the World Economic Forum.
Nielsen’s rise to Director of Homeland Security came in a roundabout manner. She was General John Kelly’s chief of staff at the Department of Homeland Security when he headed that agency. But she later accompanied Kelly to the White House when Donald Trump appointed the general to the post of Chief of Staff. There, Nielsen became Kelly’s principal deputy. Following Kelly’s move to the White House, the Homeland Security post was held by Acting Secretary Elaine Duke. But in October of 2017, Trump named Nielsen to replace Duke, and she was Senate-confirmed in December of that year, officially becoming Secretary of Homeland Security.
In the year and a half that she headed up the Homeland Security Department, Nielsen presided over some of the most morally and legally questionable as well as cruel policies of the Trump era to date. Surely the most controversial of these has been “family separation”, in which the United States government has ordered the separation of the families of undocumented immigrants, including asylum-seekers, at ports of entry on the US-Mexican border. This policy of separation has included the removal of immigrant children, quite often to parts unknown.
The Washington Post Editorial Board has accurately described Nielsen’s performance at the DHS as “attempting to placate a president for whom no anti-immigrant measure is beyond the pale.” While some media outlets have sought to turn Nielsen into a sort of unsung hero for her refusal to go as far as the president asked her to go in implementing his authoritarian advances, the Post also precisely described her time at the DHS as “a season of gratuitous, inept and ultimately futile cruelty,” adding that, “in the process, she bent the truth, sought to evade accountability and did incalculable damage to the prestige of the United States. It is a miserable record.”
And new evidence is pointing to the probability that many thousands more migrant families have been broken up than originally thought, with the process of family separation having begun in the first year of the president’s term and only becoming public knowledge last year when the situation reached crisis proportions. Worse still, Nielsen was so anxious to placate her boss that neither she nor her staff deigned to ask themselves how they would track the members of the families that they were ripping apart so that they might be reunited in the future. There was a feeble attempt to scrap this policy after it became a full-blown scandal in the national and international news media, but the president is doubling down on it once more and it is now clear that this heinous and inhuman practice has his enormous signature all over it.
The heart-rending result of this is that hundreds of children snatched from the arms of their parents and caged, before being fostered out to parts unknown, are now missing and the government has no idea where to find them. Clearly, this US administration has no foresight, nor does it seem concerned at all about the burden of posterity.
We’ve come to understand that Donald Trump is hardly an intellectual. This is why, since taking office, he has consistently relied on shadowy, Rasputin-like characters to do his thinking for him. To a man, they are extreme nationalists who view the presidency more as an authoritarian game-changer than as an integral part of a complex system of division of powers and of checks and balances. The most prominent figures in this camp have been far-right ideologue Steve Bannon and, more lately, Stephen Miller. The 33-year-old Miller, who had a political kinship to Bannon when Bannon had the president’s ear, came to the government through former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, but “outlived” Sessions to become Trump’s senior adviser.
Miller is seen as having a major influence on Trump’s courting of the National Rifle Association, his false claims regarding “massive voter fraud” that he perceived as taking the popular vote from him in 2016, his view of the judiciary as “too powerful” and as an enemy of the presidency, and, first and foremost, his extreme anti-immigration policy. Indeed, Miller was instrumental in the administration’s defeat of the Immigration Reform Bill that would have gone a long way toward solving the immigration situation in the US.
As a footnote, it is worthwhile wondering how a man like Miller developed his rabid aversion to immigrants. The fact is that he descends from a family of asylum-seekers who immigrated to the US. His mother’s family arrived in the United States in the early 1900s from Belarus, from where they fled in the face of the anti-Jewish pogroms perpetrated by czarist Russia. Furthermore, as a Jew, it would be hard for him not to know that today’s Western asylum laws originated after World War II, as a result of the holocaust. His fundamentalist anti-immigration stance and his full support for and promotion of such cruel policies are, then, all the more baffling.
The fact is that the border crisis is being manufactured by the Trump administration in general and by Stephen Miller in particular. The solution isn’t throwing human rights considerations out the window and acting like some of the worst dictatorial regimes in living memory, where state-promoted abductions, disappearances and separation of families have also been used as inhuman policy tools, but by putting aside futile political divisions and agreeing on a compromise to repair what is, basically, a dysfunctional immigration system.
Perhaps a history lesson would be in order, for the sake of providing perspective. This policy bears a striking resemblance to the forced relocation of Japanese-Americans and Japanese residents during World War II. That humanitarian fiasco left a moral stain on the Roosevelt administration—and so too on the United States—that no amount of good that FDR might have done for the country could erase.
Again, however, this administration seems uninterested in either the past or the future, but merely in a present that it is deeply invested in turning chaotic. If we can’t get the full story now, when the Trump administration is consistently stone-walling on not just this, but practically every issue of the day, we’ll surely get it in the future when books are written, studies done, and films made about the lawlessness and cruelty of this administration, whose chief executive is notoriously divorced from humanitarianism, the Constitution and the rule of law.