“SECRETARY OF HOMELAND SECURITY Kirstjen Nielsen will be leaving her position, and I would like to thank her for her service,” tweeted President Donald Trump on the evening of April 7th. Ms Nielsen lasted more than a year in her post, but Mr Trump had long regarded her as weak. Her departure augurs another election campaign with immigration policy at its centre.
Few on the left will feel much pity for Ms Nielsen. She became the face of the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy, under which anyone who crossed America’s border illegally was referred to the Justice Department for prosecution. That policy resulted in the separation of thousands of children from their parents. Identifying all such families, the government said in a court document filed last week, could take up to two years. Ms Nielsen also defended firing tear gas over America’s border into Mexico at protesters, including children. Under her leadership, the Homeland Security department tried to ban anyone who crossed the border illegally from claiming asylum (a federal judge halted that policy), and has sent an increasing number of Central Americans back to Mexico to wait for their asylum claims to be processed.
But Mr Trump appears to have regarded Ms Nielsen as too feeble for the job. Nearly a year ago, according to the New York Times, she drafted a resignation letter after Mr Trump publicly berated her for failing to stop illegal immigration; at the time a Homeland Security department spokesman called the report “false”. She reportedly supported Ronald Vitiello, whose nomination as head of America’s immigration police Mr Trump withdrew on April 5th, saying he wanted to go “in a tougher direction.” Ms Nielsen’s resignation letter sounded a Trumpian tone, blaming “Congress and the courts” for not “fixing the laws which have impeded our ability to fully secure America’s borders and which have contributed to discord in our nation’s discourse.”
Yet what she could have done to satisfy Mr Trump is unclear. He seems to want people to simply stop coming to America; that will not happen as long as Central American countries remain weak and violent. If anything, Mr Trump’s recently announced cutting of aid to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras risks propelling more migrants from those countries northward.
When such migrants do come, Mr Trump seems to want the power to simply turn them around. Hence his call last week, before leaving the White House for a photo-op on America’s southern border, to “get rid of the whole asylum system” and “get rid of judges.” An administration official told CNN that Ms Nielsen “believed the situation was becoming untenable with the president becoming increasingly unhinged about the border crisis and making unreasonable and even impossible requests.”
What might those requests entail? Mr Trump has already mulled shutting down the southern border. Last week at the border, he told would-be migrants, “Our country is full...so turn around. That’s the way it is.” He reportedly demanded that Ms Nielsen stop migrants from seeking asylum—something that is beyond the power of any secretary of homeland security.
Perhaps Mr Trump wants someone who would at least look as if they were attempting to introduce such policies: by talking tough on television, and blaming Democrats, feckless judges and the media when his administration does not get its way.
Mr Trump prefers noisy fights to the grinding, unglamorous compromise that democratic governance requires. During the government shutdown, it was clear he wanted the fight over the wall more than he wanted an actual wall (which he could have got through negotiations with Congress). With a presidential election less than two years away, Mr Trump would, it seems, prefer a secretary of homeland security who echoes his aggressive tone and champions his views, however legally unfeasible, to one who patiently explains why he cannot do as he pleases.