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The grim desperation of Kirstjen Nielsen

The Fix's Aaron Blake analyzes Homeland Security secretary Kirstjen Nielsen's twisting defense of immigrant family separation. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post)

If there's one member of President Trump's Cabinet who is the most embattled right now, it might be Kirstjen Nielsen. And the Department of Homeland Security secretary seems to be willing to say just about anything to get back on the president's good side.

Behind the scenes, Nielsen is reportedly fighting Trump's decision to separate migrant children from parents who cross the U.S. border. But on Sunday night, she took to Twitter to offer some pretty remarkable spin by arguing that no such policy exists.

“We do not have a policy of separating families at the border,” she said. “Period.”

One could make the case that this is technically true. It's also wholly dishonest.

While no specific policy says children must be taken from their families, the Trump administration has decided to interpret the law to put those who cross the border illegally in jail regardless of whether they bring children — and children cannot be placed in jail. The inescapable upshot of that is that the children must be separated from their families in a way they simply weren't in the past two administrations.

In a speech Monday, Nielsen said of claims that the administration is being “unhumanitarian”: “We are doing none of those things. We are enforcing the laws passed by Congress.”

Other members of the Trump administration have acknowledged this policy shift, which makes Nielsen's contention rather strange. Nielsen seems to be trying to muddy the waters by arguing that asylum seekers coming to regular points of entry aren't being separated from their families. There have been reports that they have been separated. And, regardless, this is decidedly a shift in practice.

But in context, it's hardly surprising. Nielsen's tenure as DHS secretary has been marked by the occasionally strange claim and a willingness to stretch the bounds of credulity to avoid further alienating her boss. That happened recently when she said she wasn't familiar with the intelligence community's conclusion that Russia aimed to help Trump in the 2016 election -- a key point of contention for Trump and one that multiple members of his administration have cast doubt upon.

I do not believe that I've seen that conclusion,” Nielsen said last month. “That the specific intent was to help President Trump win? I'm not aware of that.” But the then-16-month-old intelligence report states that Russia had a “clear preference” for Trump and worked to “harm” Hillary Clinton's prospects. It says that “the Russian Government aspired to help President-elect Trump’s election chances when possible.”

Nielsen's testimony to Congress in January was also somewhat cringeworthy. After declining to confirm that Trump described Haiti and African nations as “shithole countries” in a meeting she had attended, Nielsen was asked about Trump reportedly citing Norway as an example of a country with more desirable immigrants. Spotlighting a heavily white Scandinavian country in contrast to countries with heavy black populations led to plenty of inescapable conclusions — for just about everyone except Nielsen, it seemed.

Here's the exchange with Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.):

LEAHY: What does he mean when he says he wants more immigrants from Norway?
NIELSEN: I don't believe he said that specifically. . . . what he was specifically referring to is, the prime minister telling him that the people of Norway work very hard. And so, what he was referencing is, from a merit-based perspective, we'd like to have those with skills who can assimilate and contribute to the United States, moving away from country quotas and to an individual merit-based system.
LEAHY: Norway is a predominantly white country, isn't it?
NIELSEN: I actually do not know that, sir, but I imagine that is the case.

Norway is 95 percent white.

Senators questioned Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen on Jan. 16 about Trump's "shithole countries" remarks and the immigration deal negotiations. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post, Photo: Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

What's remarkable about the whole thing is that Nielsen has publicly appeared to be one of Trump's staunchest defenders. Yet he has privately berated her for an uptick in illegal immigration and apparently doesn't trust her because she worked in the Bush administration.

If this is a motivational tactic, it appears to be working. But it also means Nielsen might be sacrificing her credibility for something of a lost cause. And claims like the one she made Sunday night surely damage her credibility.