Kirstjen Nielsen will leave her post as secretary of Homeland Security, President Donald Trump announced on Sunday.
“Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen will be leaving her position, and I would like to thank her for her service,” Trump wrote on Twitter. “I am pleased to announce that Kevin McAleenan, the current U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner, will become Acting Secretary for @DHSgov. I have confidence that Kevin will do a great job!“
Nielsen oversaw the implementation of Trump’s contentious immigration agenda, including the separation of thousands of families at the U.S.-Mexico border.
The 46-year-old Cabinet member was confirmed to the role in December 2017. Almost from the start, she came under fierce criticism from Trump over an uptick in illegal immigration. As a wave of Central American families arrived at the southwest border in recent months, scrutiny of her performance only intensified.
The news comes after the White House on Friday unexpectedly pulled the nomination of Ronald Vitiello to become director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Vitiello, a longtime Border Patrol official, had already been approved by one congressional committee, but still need the approval of the Senate Judiciary Committee and Senate confirmation.
A White House aide said Nielsen was told of the decision to withdraw Vitiello’s nomination two weeks ago, but disagreed with the move.
“I think she thought by stalling on making a plan for new ICE leadership, she would buy time to relitigate the decision,” a senior White House official said.
However, a person familiar with the situation argued that Nielsen was blindsided by the move to drop Vitiello.
“At the end of the day, there were mounting frustrations on both sides,” the person told Politico.
Trump said Friday that his administration sought to “go in a tougher direction“ with the ICE role, but the White House has not announced a new nominee.
The president was widely expected to dismiss Nielsen after November’s midterm elections and surprised allies by keeping her on board. The two have clashed on their approach to immigration and border security from the outset of her tenure, with Trump complaining that she was too soft and regularly pushing her to take measures that crossed legal boundaries, she told allies.
In recent months, the number of migrants arrested at the U.S.-Mexico border — a proxy for illegal crossings — rose to the highest levels in more than a decade. Under Nielsen’s watch, the Trump administration experimented with a range of policies to deter migrants, only to see the number of arrivals continue to rise.
In a resignation letter shared with Politico, Nielsen touted the administration’s performance, despite the soaring numbers of border arrests.
“I can say with confidence our homeland is safer today than when I joined the administration,” she said. “We have taken unprecedented action to protect Americans. We have implemented historic efforts to defend our borders, combat illegal immigration, obstruct the inflow of drugs, and uphold our laws and values.”
The letter said she would resign as of April 7, but a White House official said she would remain for another week to facilitate the transition. An initial draft of the letter provided to Politico misstated the year as 2018.
Democrats repeatedly sparred with Nielsen during her tenure as secretary and fumed at her department’s decision to split apart thousands of migrant families under the “zero tolerance” policy that ran from April to June of last year.
“Hampered by misstep after misstep, Kirstjen Nielsen’s tenure at the Department of Homeland Security was a disaster from the start,” Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said in a written statement following Trump‘s tweet. “It is clearer now than ever that the Trump administration’s border security and immigration policies — that she enacted and helped craft — have been an abysmal failure and have helped create the humanitarian crisis at the border.“
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer argued that Nielsen’s departure signaled taht Trump had moved far outside the mainstream when it comes to immigration enforcement.
“When even the most radical voices in the administration aren’t radical enough for President Trump, you know he’s completely lost touch with the American people,” Schumer said in a statement.
Nielsen lost two allies within the Trump administration at the end of 2018: White House chief of staff John Kelly and Secretary of Defense James Mattis, whose departures came after a lengthy record of clashes with the president.
Kelly, who preceded Nielsen as DHS secretary, was a mentor to Nielsen, who was his chief of staff at DHS and later his White House deputy.
Still, her alliance with Kelly didn’t shield her from the president’s ire over migrant “caravans” that trekked to the border from Central America over the past year. Nielsen teetered on the brink of resignation in May after Trump blasted her border management during a Cabinet meeting. Six months later, Kelly and National security adviser John Bolton engaged in a heated conversation outside the Oval Office over Nielsen’s approach to securing the border.
The announcement that McAleenan would assume the secretary’s role in an acting capacity surprised some former DHS officials. According to the department’s line of succession outlined in a 2017 defense spending bill, Claire Grady, the undersecretary for management, would be the next in line to helm the department.
Grady is currently the acting deputy secretary, a position that has remained vacant since former deputy Elaine Duke retired last April — one of numerous top positions that remain filled by acting officials at DHS.
One person familiar with Nielsen’s departure wondered whether McAleenan could win Trump’s approval in the short or long term, and contrasted his measured style with former acting ICE Director Thomas Homan’s brash persona.
“Kevin’s a smart guy, but he’s not like Tom Homan, like a rebel rouser,” the person said. “Kevin is very thoughtful and deliberate.”
Amid Trump’s busy immigration agenda, Nielsen remains best known for her involvement with the zero-tolerance policy and resultant family separations.
The policy called for all suspected border crossers — including parents and asylum seekers — to be prosecuted for illegal entry. As a result, thousands of children were separated from their parents, with children classified as “unaccompanied.“
Nielsen eventually helped Trump draft an executive order barring family separations, but 10 months and several legal challenges later the administration is still struggling to deal with the fallout.
Nielsen has repeatedly said the Trump administration never had a family separation policy, a semantic dodge undermined by the reality of increased separations at the border.
A DHS internal watchdog report released in late October said Nielsen and other officials from DHS and the Health and Human Services Department were blindsided by then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ initial decision to implement zero tolerance.