Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, who was recently on the brink of losing her job, is now expected to survive the Cabinet shake-up President Donald Trump has spent weeks teasing — and she may have the caravan to thank.
On the verge of firing by a president who has said she isn’t a strong enough defender of the U.S.-Mexico border, Nielsen has adopted — and made sure to publicize — a tough stance in response to the caravan of Central American migrants headed toward the U.S. that Trump turned into a major midterm campaign issue. She has visited the southern border three times since October, and recently hailed Trump as a forceful “leader.”
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The firm posture seems to have impressed her most important audience: the president.
Five sources inside and close to the administration describe a clear shift in the president’s feelings toward his DHS chief, about whom he has repeatedly complained over the past year. Her fate is of particular interest because, administration officials say, White House chief of staff John Kelly, a longtime Nielsen mentor and defender, could quickly follow her out the door in frustration.
Even some of her critics concede that Nielsen seems to have bought herself time with some savvy presentation.
“She’s playing the part of an immigration hawk as opposed to actually being one,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, who’s been critical of Nielsen in the past.
There is no such thing as total job security in Trump’s administration, where every official is subject to the president’s changing whims.
But in recent days Nielsen, backed by powerful allies including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, has shown off policy actions and political positioning that seem to have mollified Trump’s criticism.
Nielsen jumped to Trump’s public defense late last month amid blaring criticism over the use of tear gas by U.S. border officers against asylum-seekers who tried illegally crossing into the United States. In a statement under her name and posted on the Facebook page of the Department of Homeland Security, she accused organizers of the caravan of using women and children as “human shields.”
She also praised Trump, thanking him for the decision to send U.S. military troops to the border.
“Instead of ‘a political stunt,’ as suggested by some, this was in fact the act of a leader concerned about the rule of law,” she wrote of a president who eight days earlier had said that Nielsen needed to “get much tougher” on border security.
Soon after that statement, she sent a memo to a half-dozen federal agencies, first reported by POLITICO, urging them to deploy all available civilian law enforcement officers to the border.
Both moves, combined with a recent surge in Nielsen’s social media posts about border security, have placed the Cabinet secretary on safer ground, according to allies of the Homeland Security chief and two people familiar with Trump’s thinking.
“The recent developments with Mexico and her strong Facebook post have helped subside the speculation on her future,” a source close to Nielsen told POLITICO.
In what may have been another positive sign, Nielsen accompanied Melania Trump to a Nov. 28 town hall discussion of the opioid epidemic at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., where the first lady said she was “proud” to be joined by the DHS chief.
Those close to Nielsen said she has been relieved to see gossip about her job status dissipate. They also noted that several Republicans who have the president’s ear recently expressed their appreciation for her both publicly and behind closed doors, including Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Vice President Mike Pence.
But the sudden respite from job-related speculation has also stirred frustration among Nielsen and her allies. One source close to the secretary said “she’s just now starting to bear fruit for all the work she’s put in,” claiming that Nielsen has been a quiet steward of Trump’s immigration agenda for months, but couldn’t discuss several policies in public until recently.
“Ever since the [family] separation issue, she’s been working behind the scenes trying to find solutions. I don’t think it’s her being tougher, it’s just that things she’s worked on just now emerged front and center,” said a former Nielsen aide, citing the administration’s recently debuted plan to force migrants seeking asylum in the U.S. to stay in Mexico until their claims can be heard. The aide claimed the Remain in Mexico policy, as it’s widely known, was borne out of the family separation crisis earlier this summer, which Nielsen defended at the time, but privately told confidants she did not want to let happen again.
Nielsen’s post-midterm job performance has satisfied Trump enough to make it possible she will hold her job well into 2019, according to one senior administration official. Two sources close to the secretary also said she’s committed to staying as long as Kelly remains inside the West Wing and her relationship with the president remains neutral.
Nielsen has meanwhile continued her official duties. She and Pompeo were scheduled to meet with Mexico’s incoming foreign minister on Sunday and Monday in Washington to finalize the details of the policy, to which newly inaugurated Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador tentatively agreed last month.
According to the former Nielsen aide, Trump’s Homeland Security chief has forged strong relationships with Pompeo and Mattis over the course of her tenure.
The support of Mattis and Pompeo came up repeatedly during a recent conversation between Trump and Kelly, who has spent months trying to save her job.
Two sources familiar with the conversation said Kelly also warned Trump about the difficulties of installing a new head of the agency, which has gone months without a permanent deputy secretary and could face significant hurdles in its border protection division if the government shuts down later this month.
“No one has been working harder to implement the president’s security-focused agenda than Secretary Nielsen,” said DHS spokesman Tyler Houlton. “She is fully focused on supporting the men and women of DHS, the mission at hand, and solving the crisis at the border.”
Critics who doubt Nielsen’s allegiance to Trump’s restrictionist immigration agenda have said her recent trips to the border may have marked a turning point in their perception of her. Nielsen told Fox News’ Martha MacCallum — in an interview last month conducted at the border — that any migrants who avoid ports of entry and enter the United States illegally would “absolutely … be apprehended and removed immediately.”
“Everything is on the table,” she said, when asked how the administration planned to address the sudden influx of migrants
“This is what a DHS secretary is supposed to do,” said Krikorian, who remains skeptical that Nielsen is as hard line on immigration as she publicly suggests.
“But I don’t care who’s in that job so long as they’re doing the job,” he added.
Daniel Lippman and Nancy Cook contributed to this report.