The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As Trump pushes Kirstjen Nielsen out the door, liberal groups try to prevent a soft landing

Former homeland security secretary Kirstjen Nielsen talks outside her home in Alexandria on April 8.
Former homeland security secretary Kirstjen Nielsen talks outside her home in Alexandria on April 8. (Kevin Wolf/AP)

Kirstjen Nielsen’s support for the Trump administration’s family separation policy followed her to a Mexican restaurant, where protesters yelled “Shame!” as she finished her meal.

It followed her to her home, where activists chanted into bullhorns and held signs proclaiming Nielsen a “child snatcher.”

Now, as the former homeland security secretary exits the Trump administration, a coalition of liberal groups is seeking to prevent her from going on to the type of lucrative private-sector job or speaking gig that many former Cabinet officials take upon leaving public service.

“This is not a normal administration. This was not a normal policy. And the people who participated in that policy do not deserve normal treatment,” said Karl Frisch, a spokesman for the advocacy group Restore Public Trust, which has spearheaded efforts to pressure companies not to hire Nielsen. “They have to be held accountable for what they’ve done. They’ve left thousands of families traumatized because of their negligence.”

Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen was a loyal soldier for President Trump and often repeated his falsehoods, but it wasn’t enough to save her job. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

A DHS spokesman declined to comment on the effort by liberal critics and on Nielsen’s future.

More than four-dozen top officials have left the Trump administration since the president took office in January 2017 and began a tumultuous tenure that has often colored the reputations of aides and Cabinet members.

Some have emphasized their differences with Trump on the way out. Former defense secretary Jim Mattis, for instance, resigned over differences with Trump on Syria and is returning next month to his position at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.

But others, such as Nielsen, have tied their fortunes to Trump — making for a sometimes rocky reentry into the private sphere.

As homeland security secretary, Nielsen became the public face of Trump’s broadly criticized policy of separating migrant children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border. On Monday, she thanked Trump and voiced continued support for his efforts to reduce illegal immigration.

“I share the president’s goal of securing the border,” Nielsen said in an exchange with reporters outside her home in Virginia. “I will continue to support all efforts to address the humanitarian and security crisis on the border.”

Even before her forced resignation, liberal groups, immigrant rights advocates and others had launched an effort to pressure companies not to hire Nielsen and more than two-dozen other Trump administration officials who were involved in implementing and defending the family separation policy.

The campaign, led by Restore Public Trust, included a letter last week to Fortune 500 company CEOs as well as an ad in the New York Times with the message, “Attention corporate America: Don’t let hate into your boardroom.”

The decision over whether to hire a former Trump administration official can create a dilemma for a university or think tank, which can benefit from an official’s experiences and inside knowledge but face public backlash.

Several former Trump officials have been met with resistance as they have moved from the administration to other roles.

Marc Short, Trump’s former legislative affairs director, and Sean Spicer, Trump’s first White House press secretary, also faced public opposition when they were awarded fellowships by the University of Virginia and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, respectively. In the case of Short, who now serves as Vice President Pence’s chief of staff, two historians resigned from the Virginia center that granted him the fellowship.

Mo Elleithee, executive director of the Georgetown Institute of Politics and Public Service, declined to discuss Nielsen’s specific case but said in general, universities should expose students to different viewpoints, as uncomfortable as they may be.

“Whether that be a speaker or whether that be a student’s right to protest a speaker, that is all part of the dialogue that is acceptable,” he said. “The role of the university is to keep its students safe from harm but not safe from ideas.”

Cabinet secretaries typically go on to a range of pursuits after leaving government. Former DHS secretary Janet Napolitano, for instance, is the president of the University of California system. Others sit on corporate boards, open their own consulting businesses, write books or make top dollar on the public speaking circuit.

Spicer said in an interview that there’s “no question” there will be a market for Nielsen’s skills and national security expertise.

“For people like Kirstjen, there’s always going to be companies that have an interest in hearing from her expertise and her counsel,” he said. “This is a huge country and a lot of business gets done in that realm, and she’s got a tremendous amount of expertise at a critical time.”

Before joining the Trump administration, Nielsen was a senior fellow at George Washington University’s Center for Cyber and Homeland Security and worked as a private cybersecurity consultant.

John Sandweg, a former top aide to Napolitano and acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement under President Barack Obama, said the complicated politics of Nielsen’s situation combined with a résumé that is less extensive relative to some of her predecessors leave her in a “diminished state” compared with some of her predecessors.

“She embraced some very controversial, disliked policies,” Sandweg said. “I would point to family separation; I think that hurts her legacy and could hurt her in the private sector. . . . At the same time, with the president’s base, she isn’t necessarily loved there and was dismissed by the president.”

David Nakamura contributed to this report.