President Donald Trump nominated Kirstjen Nielsen on Wednesday for one of the most difficult jobs in the federal government: running the Department of Homeland Security.
DHS, a 15-year-old department cobbled together from parts of other Cabinet departments after 9/11, is the heart of Donald Trump’s executive-branch agenda through its management of immigration enforcement at the border (Customs and Border Protection) and in the interior (Immigration and Customs Enforcement). But it’s also host to a slew of other agencies that don’t draw attention when they’re doing their jobs well, but can cause huge problems when they don’t: scandal-plagued Secret Service and the much hated Transportation Security Administration, FEMA, etc.
Nielsen’s current job, however, may leave her well-prepared for this task. Since John Kelly was appointed Trump’s chief of staff in August to bring some discipline to Trump’s White House, she’s been working as Kelly’s deputy: the enforcer’s enforcer. From that perspective, DHS secretary may not actually be a tougher job than the one she has now.
If confirmed by the Senate, which has tended to greenlight Trump’s nominees, Nielsen would be the first head of the department to have actually worked in it before. She worked at the TSA under George W. Bush, as well as on the Homeland Security Council in Bush’s White House. Her expertise is in cybersecurity, disaster preparedness, and efficient execution. She was also Kelly’s deputy at DHS during the first six months of the Trump administration, before being brought over with him to attempt to bring some semblance of order to a White House marked by chaos.
Her previous work at DHS and running a private-sector cybersecurity firm means that she might know more about homeland security policy going into the job than any of her predecessors have. (The New York Times described her as a “no-nonsense player and policy wonk.”) But, though she has served as alongside Kelly, Nielsen doesn’t personally have experience managing huge organizations — much less ones that appear to be constantly on the verge of dysfunction, and where missteps can totally sink a president’s reputation.
Nielsen seems to have cleared the approval of immigration hawks in Trump’s White House, led by Stephen Miller, and because the White House clearly pays special attention to immigration, it’s unlikely that she is going to be a strong and independent voice in policymaking.
Nielsen has credibility as a professional, so it’s possible she’ll enforce policies from the Trump administration staff more efficiently — making them harder for the public to detect.
Nielsen is closely associated with Kelly, which keeps her safe — for now
In the Trump administration, managing up — managing your manager, and ultimately the boss at the top — is at least as important as managing your underlings. And Nielsen has been an expert at managing up. Her rise to the top at DHS is almost singlehandedly the product of her close working relationship with Kelly.
The two started working together when Nielsen, then a member of the Trump transition team, led Kelly’s preparations for his confirmation hearings as DHS secretary — he was reportedly impressed by her work ethic. She reportedly came to work even after cracking a rib.
As Kelly’s deputy at the White House, Nielsen’s often been the one telling Trump confidantes that they can’t talk to the president whenever they like, or keeping people like Omarosa Marigault out of meetings. That rubbed some Trump aides the wrong way in the early weeks of her tenure — especially because Nielsen herself didn’t have a relationship with the president. But she’s apparently developed one; a White House official told NBC News that Trump is “very fond” of Nielsen.
It’s clear that Nielsen wouldn’t have been nominated for the DHS job if she still raised hackles within the White House. Internal White House dissent was enough to scuttle at least one other high-profile candidate for the job, House Homeland Security Committee Chair Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX), who was rumored to be bumped off the shortlist after some in the White House questioned his commitment to the president’s hardline agenda.
Nielsen — who isn’t familiar to advocates on either side of the immigration issue — apparently satisfied Miller’s concerns, indicating she’s seen as a reliable executor of the White House’s desires.
The biggest concern for Nielsen’s future would be Kelly himself: Some Republicans speculate he’s already sick of the job of governing the ungovernable Trump and that he’s trying to protect Nielsen by getting her out of the White House before he leaves. But whether Nielsen would be safe could depend on how Trump feels about Kelly’s departure, if it happens — and who would replace him.
Kelly himself, as well as other replacement Trump officials like National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, have pushed out staffers they feel are insufficiently loyal to the president; if Kelly leaves on contentious terms, or is replaced by someone who distrusts him, Nielsen could be seen in the same light.
Nielsen is a strict manager who is unlikely to want to rein her department in
During the time Nielsen was at DHS under Kelly, her professionalism appeared to make a good impression on some colleagues — while others were rubbed the wrong way. One official told Newsweek that Nielsen didn’t have what it took to run a “200,000-person law enforcement agency.”
Running a 10,000-person law enforcement agency certainly is a different task than managing few dozen squabbling White House staffers. But it’s instructive to look at Kelly’s own management style.
As chief of staff, Kelly sees himself as serving the president — but as DHS secretary, he saw himself as serving the men and women on the front lines of homeland security. In both cases, Kelly saw his task as keeping the people he was serving from distractions so they could do their jobs — whether that meant controlling how information got to the president’s desk so he wasn’t as easily angered by Daily Caller clips, or chastising the press and members of Congress for questioning ICE agents’ tactics during immigration arrests.
The Trump administration sees its efforts to take the “handcuffs” off immigration agents as a signature achievement of its tenure so far — and it’s not one Nielsen is likely to undo. But the White House’s immigration agenda is now shifting to issues where it will need to work closely between agencies and departments — like tightening asylum policy, where it will need to work with HHS, and the permanent travel ban, where it will need to work with State — and work with Congress on the terms of an immigration deal to address the future of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. For those, someone who knows the organizational ins and outs of DHS might be most effective.