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As the Department of Homeland Security gains new authority over cybersecurity and continues its review of election security during the 2018 midterms, Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen’s future at the agency remains uncertain.
During a “Fox News Sunday” interview, President Trump would not commit to Nielsen continuing as DHS secretary following a Washington Post report that he is planning to remove her from the post. Just two days earlier, Nielsen stood by his side as he signed a bill into law that creates a new cyber-focused agency within DHS.
“There’s a chance, there’s a chance everybody, I mean that’s what happens in government, you leave, you make a name, you go,” Trump told Fox News's Chris Wallace yesterday when asked whether Nielsen would continue at DHS. “I like her very much, I respect her very much, I’d like her to get much tougher on the border — much tougher, period.”
Trump’s frustration with Nielsen’s performance on immigration may be her undoing. But Nielsen’s potential ouster comes at a time when the department is engaged in critical cybersecurity work and could actually disrupt efforts to take stock of how well states and localities secured their elections in the 2018 midterms as the country heads into 2020, the first presidential election year since Russia is known to have interfered with the electoral process.
DHS officials have long worried that turnover there made it difficult for the department to stay on top of evolving cyber threats. Nielsen has been at DHS for less than a year, and a new secretary would be the fourth in two years. If Nielsen leaves sometime in the near future, it would create a void at the top of a department just as it is finally taking the reins as the government's top cyber cop — a role lawmakers have been reluctant to bestow on DHS since such proposals were introduced during the Obama administration.
Lawmakers worried the relatively young, sprawling department agency wasn't well-equipped to handle cybersecurity threats, but legislation signed by President Trump Friday created a DHS agency that would do just that.
David Becker, the executive director of the nonprofit Center for Election Innovation & Research, said Nielsen's leadership was essential to efforts to secure the 2018 midterm elections because she enabled state and federal officials to effectively collaborate after a rocky post-2016 start. The department is currently reviewing how successful it was in securing voting infrastructure and systems in 2018, although there is no current evidence of tampering with election infrastructure.
“Her leadership was focused on exactly the right tone with state and local election officials,” Becker said, adding that if Nielsen exits, “It could mean a real loss of cybersecurity leadership and focus.”
Nielsen did face scrutiny earlier in her tenure for appearing to call into question the intelligence community’s finding that Russia influenced the 2016 election in favor of Trump. As The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake wrote at the time, her comments raised questions about whether the administration was taking seriously threats of election interference.
Chris Krebs, the newly elevated Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency director, wouldn’t comment about the possibility of Nielsen's departure in an interview with me last week. However, Krebs did praise the secretary's commitment to cybersecurity.
“The secretary has been an incredible champion for DHS cybersecurity and cybersecurity across the country,” Krebs said.
Before serving as DHS secretary, Nielsen was a cybersecurity expert in the private sector. She also served as a special adviser for emergency preparedness and disaster response during the George W. Bush administration and worked at the Transportation and Security Administration.
“To have someone who just intrinsically understands issues related to cybersecurity is a huge asset in a fight to prevent future foreign interference in our elections,” Becker said.
My colleagues Nick Miroff, Josh Dawsey and Philip Rucker broke the news of Trump’s plans to oust Nielsen last week. They reported that people who previously worked with Nielsen were astonished when she was selected for the role because she had no experience leading a large organization, but had served in the chief of staff role when John Kelly, the former DHS head who is now the White House chief of staff, was there.
Nielsen’s removal may have been delayed because there is not a clear successor to replace her (though Trump has changed his mind on personnel decisions before), the Associated Press reported on Thursday. Potential candidates include U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan, and two military officers — TSA head David Pekoske, formerly of the Coast Guard, and Maj. Gen. Vincent Coglianese, who runs the Marine Corps Installations Command, the AP reported.
Nielsen’s work enforcing Trump’s immigration policies has largely overshadowed her cybersecurity efforts. She became the public face of the administration’s much-maligned policy of separating families at the U.S.-Mexico border when she gave a news conference defending the controversial practice at the height of the controversy.
If Nielsen is pushed out of the administration, it could be an early indicator that well-qualified people may not want to work in the Trump administration, Aaron wrote.
“But she seems to be a victim of irrational expectations more than anything,” Blake wrote. “And she has spent much of her tenure tolerating Trump’s whims and even putting her reputation on the line in the name to keeping her job. No amount of public fealty, it seems, has been enough.”
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