Wednesday will be Kirstjen Nielsen’s last heading the Department of Homeland Security, barely a week after winning Spoiler Alert’s Worst Cabinet Member Award for 2019. What will she do next?
This has been a source of speculation since the news that she submitted her resignation to President Trump came across the interwebs on Sunday night. The New York Times’s Maggie Haberman tweeted Sunday that one reason Nielsen stayed as long as she did was that “she was aware how awful life would/will be for her on the outside after defending his policies for a long time.” In contrast, ProPublica’s Jesse Eisinger tweeted:
Over at Crooked Timber, Henry Farrell responded by writing: “Different people have different limits. Nielsen is some distance beyond mine. If she gets a position at a think-tank, university center or similar, I will not participate on any panel that involves anyone from that think-tank, center or other institution. I will not participate in any event where the institution plays an organizing role, nor will I associate myself in any way that might reasonably be seen as providing active support for that institution.” A fairly lengthy list of academics have signed on to Farrell’s position.
Indeed, it is striking to see the ways in which Nielsen’s resignation has generated this reaction in a way that John Kelly’s departure did not. Even before Nielsen had stepped down, Jennifer Epstein of Bloomberg News reported that immigration and civil rights groups were urging “companies not to hire senior Trump administration officials who were involved in planning, carrying out or defending the separation of migrant children from their parents.”
The New York Times’s Michelle Goldberg feels similarly:
What happens to Nielsen now can serve as an example to other people in the administration as they decide whether to just follow orders. By this, I don’t mean that people should scream at Nielsen in restaurants. Rather, those horrified by family separation should do whatever they can to deny Nielsen the sort of cushy corporate landing or prestigious academic appointment once customary for ex-administration officials. The fact that she evidently didn’t go as far as an erratic and out-of-control Trump wanted is immaterial; she should be a pariah for going as far as she did.
At the same time, Politico’s Andrew Restuccia and Daniel Lippman report that Nielsen’s allies are trying to formulate a rehabilitation strategy: “Nielsen’s allies began spinning a narrative of her tenure that casts her not as an enabler of President Donald Trump’s most controversial immigration policies, but as a guardrail against even more extreme action.” This no doubt explains much of the sourcing behind CNN’s Sunday night story that painted Nielsen as a defender of the rule of law compared with Trump.
So what to think? A few things. First, let’s dispense with the fiction that Nielsen is worthy of rehabilitation because she refused to violate the law egregiously to satisfy Trump’s wishes. She may have still managed to violate some laws, like lying to Congress. She was also super-enthusiastic about stretching the boundaries of existing law as much as possible. Dara Lind’s excellent Vox explainer notes that Nielsen was “arguably the most aggressive secretary in the department’s short history — a stint that will most likely be remembered for the ‘zero tolerance’ prosecution policy of late spring and early summer 2018 that resulted in the separation of thousands of families attempting to cross at the US-Mexico border.” Finally, this is not someone who is resigning on principle. As my Post colleagues David Nakamura, Josh Dawsey and Seung Min Kim report, Nielsen “furiously tried to save her job” in the past week. Nielsen is the very definition of a careerist.
Second, I seriously doubt that Nielsen will find a think tank or university sinecure outside of, say, Hillsdale College. Nielsen occupies the uncanny valley of being not quite Trumpist enough to please the #MAGA crowd while also being way too Trumpist for anyone else. There is also the small matter that she appeared to be pretty bad at her job. As a result, there is little upside in any D.C. think tank hitching its wagon to her. Contra Eisinger, I doubt she finds a sinecure in respectable quarters. Nielsen is not good for anyone’s brand.
As I noted in “The Ideas Industry,” it is the for-profit sector that has been thriving in recent decades. It is possible that Nielsen lands a consulting gig — her background in cyber would likely be of some interest. The problem, however, is that this is not a low-profile hire. Nielsen’s rough departure from the Trump administration means it is unlikely that any law firm or lobbying shop would want her as the public face of, well, any initiative that needs to interact with the federal government.
This does not mean that no one will hire Nielsen, but I would bet on two things: Anyone who does hire her will do so as a contractor, and it is likely to go unadvertised.
More generally, we are clearly in a new equilibrium when it comes to new Trump hires. Before, Trump’s toxicity and hostility to mainstream GOP hands meant that he was scraping the bottom of the GOP barrel. As more and more policy principals leave the administration with their reputations in tatters, recruitment will be a problem. Trump is now scraping the bottom of the bottom of the barrel.