Democracy Dies in Darkness

National Security

Trump unloads on Homeland Security secretary in lengthy immigration tirade

May 10, 2018 at 9:24 PM

Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen arrives to speak before a House Homeland Security Committee subcommittee on Capitol Hill in April. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

President Trump berated Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen in a dispiriting Cabinet meeting on immigration Wednesday, according to three administration officials, but her colleagues denied reports that she has threatened to quit.

Trump lashed out at his Cabinet, and Nielsen in particular, when told that the number of people arrested for illegally crossing the Mexico border topped 50,000 for the second consecutive month. The blowup lasted more than 30 minutes, according to a person with knowledge of what transpired, as Trump’s face reddened and he raised his voice, saying Nielsen needed to “close down” the border. 

“Why don’t you have solutions? How is this still happening?” he said, adding later, “We need to shut it down. We’re closed.”

Administration officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to provide a candid account of the private meeting.

Trump’s tirade went on so long that many present began fidgeting in their seats and flashing grimaces, White House aides said. Eventually, the topic moved on to health care, bringing relief to many in the room. 

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Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen on April 4 said President Trump “has directed that National Guard personnel be deployed to the southern border.” (Reuters)

Trump’s outburst at Nielsen was first reported Thursday by the New York Times.

The president’s eruption was witnessed by Cabinet members plus a number of senior White House officials — including counselor Kellyanne Conway, advisers Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, immigration adviser Stephen Miller and chief economic adviser Larry Kudlow.

Related: [Trump taps Kirstjen Nielsen to lead Department of Homeland Security]

Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, Nielsen’s top ally who recommended her to Trump for the Homeland Security job, also was present.

Nielsen battled back, one person said, telling Trump that laws limit some of what she could do to block the flow of undocumented immigrants. Attorney General Jeff Sessions defended her, saying the administration was looking for new ways to deter illegal crossings.

Mostly, though, Nielsen struggled to get a word in, said one senior official. 

The New York Times and Politico reported that Nielsen, who began the job in December, drafted a resignation letter. In a statement Thursday, a spokesman for the agency said that was false. Two senior White House officials described Nielsen as upset after the meeting, but said they were unaware of such a letter or threats to resign.

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Kirstjen Nielsen on Dec. 8 was sworn in as secretary of homeland security by Vice President Pence. (The Washington Post)

One White House official said Nielsen was in the building again Thursday. Hogan Gidley, a White House spokesman, did not respond to emails and phone calls seeking comment.

One person close to Nielsen said she is unlikely to resign. “She feels like she’s doing the best she can and doing a good job on immigration, but she also has to follow the law,” this person said. “It’s frustrating to have your boss unhappy about that.”

Homeland Security’s deputy secretary position is vacant, so there would be no immediate replacement if Nielsen were to step down.

Related: [Top Homeland Security official, who clashed with White House over immigration policy, to step down]

Trump has never viewed Nielsen favorably, and complains to colleagues that she is “not tough enough,” according to a senior White House official. He reminds staff that she was a “George W. Bush person” because of her previous tenure as a White House Homeland Security adviser. 

In recent weeks, Nielsen has announced measures aimed at deterring illegal migration, including criminal prosecutions for parents who cross the border illegally with their children. Families are typically broken up in those circumstances, as federal immigration agents send children to government shelters while their mothers and fathers remain in custody awaiting court dates.

Trump has asked for frequent updates about the number of people attempting to cross the border illegally and has grown increasingly irritated at the recent trends. 

A caravan of Central American migrants traveling through Mexico seized the president’s attention this spring, and in the weeks that followed he frequently asked Homeland Security for updates, administration officials said.

Illegal crossings plunged in the early phase of Trump’s presidency, but have since returned to levels consistent with the last several years of the Obama administration. Arrests along the border with Mexico typically rise during springtime, when migrants seeking jobs on U.S. farms and ranches return for the summer growing season. 


Josh Dawsey is a White House reporter for The Washington Post. He joined the paper in 2017. He previously covered the White House for Politico, and New York City Hall and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie for the Wall Street Journal.

Nick Miroff covers immigration enforcement, drug trafficking and the Department of Homeland Security on The Washington Post’s National Security desk. He was a Post foreign correspondent in Latin America from 2010 to 2017, and has been a staff writer since 2006.

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