Shortly after President Donald Trump returned last March from a visit to the San Diego border, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen found herself in a familiar place — saying no to her boss.
Trump, who had just surveyed border wall prototypes, wanted to expedite the bidding process and even negotiate some of the contracts himself. Why, he demanded to know in an Oval Office meeting with Nielsen and other officials, couldn’t they make that happen, according to three people briefed on the conversation. “He would get frustrated by the bureaucracy,” including the federal procurement process and land acquisition issues, recalled a former DHS official.
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“He’s an executive who just wanted to do it immediately,” the former official explained.
Nielsen had been here before. Early in her tenure, Trump would regularly dial her cellphone in anger when DHS published monthly border apprehension numbers showing an uptick, often asking her why the government couldn’t detain undocumented minors indefinitely. Because that, Nielsen would calmly explain, would be illegal.
By last November, the constant friction with a president who struggled to grasp the complexities of immigration law had driven Nielsen to the brink of losing her job. White House allies placed bets on when she would be fired — by cold-blooded tweet, many expected — even before Trump told Fox News that his DHS chief needed to “get much tougher” if she wished to remain in his Cabinet.
But in the four months since her dismissal seemed inevitable, Nielsen has engineered a remarkable comeback.
More than a dozen former and current administration officials and others close to Nielsen who spoke with POLITICO on the condition of anonymity described the DHS chief as a former dead woman walking whose unexpected survival has opened a new chapter for her management of a powerful cabinet department. Cabinet colleagues and Republican allies now describe her as a rising star, all the stronger for having survived Trump’s wrath. She has managed to forge a stable relationship with Trump and now spends at least as much one-on-one time with him as any other Cabinet secretary.
That, they say, is thanks to her skillful handling of Trump’s border wall fixation, as well as to the departure of former White House chief of staff John Kelly, whose close relationship with Nielsen often made her collateral damage in his frequent clashes with Trump and his senior advisers.
“Having General Kelly removed from the relationship has given her a more direct point to the president,” said a person close to Nielsen.
“Kirstjen is still standing strong as secretary because she gets results and doesn’t get distracted,” said Chad Sweet, a former DHS chief of staff in the George W. Bush administration.
Twice in recent weeks, Trump has approvingly told Nielsen she’s “got a big job,” leading her to feel as though he now understands the complexities of her position as well as her intentions, according to a close confidant.
As DHS prepares to start its move to a new campus in Southeast Washington next month, Nielsen has been spending time working from office space in the Reagan Building on Pennsylvania Avenue because of its close proximity to the White House and Capitol Hill. Though she was often summoned to the Oval Office during the 35-day government shutdown to work with Trump through the crisis du jour, her autonomy has also grown. Three people familiar with the plans said Nielsen, who recently traveled to El Salvador for meetings with Northern Triangle security ministers, has two more foreign trips on her calendar in the coming months, including another visit to Latin America.
Back at home, Nielsen has shuffled staff around strategic priorities at a department with sprawling responsibilities that extend well beyond the president’s pet obsession of immigration — including cyber security, and domestic counter-terrorism. To that end, she promoted Miles Taylor, formerly deputy chief of staff at the agency and a senior adviser to Kelly when he held Nielsen’s job, to serve as chief of staff after nominating his predecessor, Chad Wolf, to lead the agency’s internal policy shop, which one former DHS official said is “sorely” in need of leadership.
“Her bread-and-butter issue is cybersecurity and there’s a lot that remains to be done in terms of making sure the country is equipped to deal with that threat, so you can expect her to start talking about that more,” said the person close to Nielsen, adding that “she’s in this until she can feel like she’s accomplished what she wants.”
Another sign that Nielsen is hunkering down was her announcement this week of a terrorism prevention summit that DHS will host later this year. “Stay tuned!” she wrote in a tweet on Tuesday, advertising a gathering of “companies, countries, and other key stakeholders to counter terrorist recruitment and radicalization.”
People close to Nielsen say she’s resolved to remain in her position as long as possible, having finally shaken off distracting speculation about her job security. Being in the hot seat for so long brought Nielsen “past the point of giving a crap to please the president or anybody else at the White House,” said a person close to her. But it also enabled her to cultivate strong bonds with officials inside the White House Domestic Policy Council and Office of Legislative Affairs, as well as with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Trump’s newest chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney. Nielsen’s advisers pushed her to “build some support internally” early on in her tenure, after realizing “that in order to survive in this environment” she would need allies who the president respected, according to a former DHS official.
One challenge for Nielsen will be restoring morale at a department whose employees have grown exasperated by Trump’s laser focus on illegal immigration, especially when White House officials would seek support from the agency’s front office, which one former senior administration official described as “not well run.” The White House did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
“It’s frustrating because you’re getting hit from the outside, but you’re not empowered to do anything about it on the inside,” the former official said.
DHS spokesman Tyler Houlton said Nielsen “has always worked diligently to support the frontline operators” in the department, in addition to “working 24/7 to keep our country safe and lead the dedicated team members at DHS.”
“We are seeing the results of significant Department-wide efforts over the last 14 months to implement more of the President’s security-focused agenda — immigration enforcement regulations have been issued, election infrastructure has been secured, multiple major natural disasters have been effectively mitigated, terror plots have been thwarted, [Migrant Protection Protocol] has been implemented and new border wall is being built,” Houlton added in a statement to POLITICO.
Part of the reason Nielsen’s standing with Trump has improved so dramatically is that she’s adjusted her strategy both publicly and privately.
Nielsen began her job with the view “that somebody competent” needed to run DHS rather than letting Trump install a secretary far outside the mainstream, according to a former DHS official. She has since become a more comfortable and more visible advocate of the president’s agenda — vigorously defending the administration in TV appearances and regularly visiting the border — and has learned to present Trump with options instead of simply telling him his goals are infeasible.
One White House official credited her with developing a “Remain in Mexico” policy that requires asylum seekers to wait on the Mexican side of the border until their cases can be heard by American immigration judges, even as other Trump aides, including national security adviser John Bolton, told Trump he could do little to alter U.S. asylum practices.
“Just look at how she managed to get the Mexican government to agree to process asylum applicants on their side of the border,” added Sweet.
Others pointed to Trump’s recent embrace of steel border fencing, which he embraced after conversations with Nielsen and Border Patrol experts.
“She went in and was originally telling him, ‘No you can’t do this because it’s illegal’ … and he didn’t like hearing it,” said the former senior administration official. “And now I think she’s better at understanding how to speak to him in a way that he feels like he’s getting what he wants.”
Their improved rapport is a far cry from the tone Trump used at a Cabinet meeting last May, when he criticized Nielsen over a spike in illegal border crossings so harshly that she reportedly considered resigning. (Trump was “rightly frustrated” at the time, Nielsen later told the New York Times.) The president told friends less than four months later that he was thinking of installing someone new at DHS who would more enthusiastically implement his agenda.
Some Nielsen allies now claim that the barrage of negative stories about her was “part of a very coordinated push to force her into a more aggressive immigration position,” as the former senior administration official put it.
“It took her awhile to hit her stride,” said a former DHS official. “But she’s now living her life just fine in DC and everything has totally calmed down.”