“Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen will be leaving her position, and I would like to thank her for her service,” Trump tweeted Sunday evening. “I am pleased to announce that Kevin McAleenan, the current U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner, will become Acting Secretary for @DHSgov. I have confidence that Kevin will do a great job!”
The meeting between Trump and Nielsen was not disclosed on the president’s public schedule, and it came three days after the White House abruptly yanked the nomination of Ronald Vitiello, who had been picked as Trump’s director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The president later signaled that he wants the nation to go “in a tougher direction” on immigration.
In her resignation letter to Trump, Nielsen said it was the “right time for me to step aside,” despite what she described as “progress in reforming homeland security for a new age.”
“I hope that the next Secretary will have the support of Congress and the courts in fixing the laws which have impeded our ability to fully secure America’s borders and which have contributed to discord in our nation’s discourse,” Nielsen wrote in the two-page letter. “Our country — and the men and women of DHS — deserve to have all the tools and resources they need to execute the mission entrusted to them.”
In a tweet late Sunday, Nielsen said, “I have agreed to stay on as Secretary through Wednesday, April 10th to assist with an orderly transition and ensure that key DHS missions are not impacted.”
Two senior administration officials said that Nielsen had no intention of quitting when she went to the meeting Sunday with the president and that she was forced to step down. The announcement of her departure came shortly after the meeting.
Trump told aides last fall that he wanted to fire Nielsen, and he grew increasingly agitated as a large caravan of Central American migrants reached the U.S.-Mexico border near San Diego. She appeared to regain her footing after U.S. Border Patrol agents used tear gas to repel a large crowd attempting to break through a border fence — the kind of “tough” action Trump said he wanted in a DHS secretary.
Nielsen’s job security improved again after she helped persuade Mexican officials to agree to an experimental policy known as the Migrant Protection Protocols, which require asylum seekers to wait in Mexico while their cases work their way through the U.S. court system. That policy began in January.
Nielsen issued a memo last week ordering a rapid expansion of the program in an attempt to deter the record number of families who continue to arrive each month. Trump has alleged that those who are seeking asylum are scamming the United States and taking advantage of asylum laws to enter the country.
The president grew frustrated with Nielsen again early this year as the number of migrants rose and as she raised legal concerns about some of Trump’s more severe impulses, particularly when his demands clashed with U.S. immigration laws and federal court orders. Nielsen also disagreed with the White House’s decision to dump Vitiello, who had been on track for Senate confirmation in coming weeks.
Trump also was unhappy that Nielsen had been in London last week ahead of meetings with Group of 7 security officials in Paris, according to two people familiar with the matter. Nielsen returned early from Europe and was with Trump in California as he toured the border on Friday.
On Wednesday and Thursday, Nielsen convened calls with other Cabinet members and White House aides, asking them to help at the border and saying she would be giving specific requests to officials, aides said.
She said there would be daily calls — which surprised other Cabinet officials — and emphasized the need to make immediate progress.
White House officials said there was a conspicuous lack of praise for Nielsen at Friday’s roundtable, which presaged her professional demise.
Among those pushing the president to remove Nielsen was national security adviser John Bolton, who repeatedly told the president he did not think she was the right fit for the job, a senior administration official said.
Nielsen’s removal — and the withdrawal of Vitiello’s nomination — also show the growing sway of senior adviser Stephen Miller, who has privately derided other officials to the president for not being tough enough and who shares the president’s hard-line impulses. In a recent Oval Office meeting, Trump told advisers that Miller would be in charge of all immigration initiatives, White House aides said.
The housecleaning blindsided Democrats, who have intensified their criticism of Nielsen and her deputies, particularly after she and then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions decided to prosecute all adults crossing the border illegally, even though it meant separating parents from their children.
Democrats had no sympathy for Nielsen in her departure. House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson (Miss.) said Nielsen’s 16-month tenure was a “disaster from the start.”
“When even the most radical voices in the administration aren’t radical enough for President Trump, you know he’s completely lost touch with the American people,” said Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.).
Nielsen’s departure puts another key official in an acting position in Trump’s Cabinet. He has interim secretaries at the departments of Defense, Interior and Homeland Security, as well as an acting leader at the Office of Management and Budget.
An acting administrator will lead the Small Business Administration once Linda McMahon officially leaves her post Friday. Mick Mulvaney, the White House chief of staff, also serves in that role on an acting basis.
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, did not directly refer to Nielsen in a statement about her exit, but he emphasized that “we have a crisis at our southwest border.”
“We need steady, informed and effective leadership in the administration and in Congress to have any hope of fixing our out-of-control border security and immigration problems,” Johnson said Sunday evening.
Ken Cuccinelli II, a former Virginia attorney general, is under consideration as Nielsen’s permanent replacement and has been at the White House recently, according to two Republicans involved in the discussions who were not authorized to speak publicly.
Another potential nominee is Energy Secretary Rick Perry, the former Texas governor who is seen as the most likely to be easily confirmed. Kris Kobach, the former Kansas secretary of state and a prominent immigration hard-liner, has been floated in the past for the job but is more likely to be involved in the administration as an adviser not subject to Senate confirmation.
Many at DHS have expressed astonishment in recent months that Nielsen was able to hang on as long as she did. Her nomination to lead the mega-bureaucracy, with 240,000 employees and a $50 billion budget, was a surprise from the start.
Nielsen, 46, was a DHS staffer and adviser during the administration of George W. Bush. She left government and remade herself as a cybersecurity expert, then returned to DHS in early 2017 as chief of staff to John F. Kelly, Trump’s first homeland security secretary. As her doubters noted at the time, Nielsen had never run a large organization.
Tensions with the White House came almost immediately after her Senate confirmation in December 2017.
The president boasted that his election win and promises to crack down on illegal immigration had pushed border crossings to their lowest level in half a century. But when that trend reversed and illegal crossings began climbing again, Trump erupted at his DHS secretary, frustrated at the setback to his self-styled image as a border-wall-building hard-liner.
Trump began chastising Nielsen in front of other staff, and he berated her extensively during one particularly awkward Cabinet meeting last May that left White House aides squirming in their chairs, according to officials in attendance.
Nielsen remained in her role and worked to regain the president’s favor, especially during a combative news conference at the height of the administration’s “zero tolerance” policy that separated more than 2,500 migrant children from their parents.
McAleenan, a career CBP official who was confirmed as commissioner in 2017 by a wide margin, will now be responsible for the nation’s border security and immigration system, the Coast Guard, the Transportation Security Administration, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Secret Service. DHS is the third-largest Cabinet agency, after Veterans Affairs and the Defense Department.
McAleenan is generally well-liked by leaders in both parties and is viewed as a neutral, technocratic law enforcement official, rather than an immigration hawk. He has traveled to the border frequently in recent months to draw attention to the growing strains on U.S. agents and infrastructure, while also speaking directly with asylum-seeking families from Central America about their reasons for leaving home.
A Los Angeles native with a law degree from the University of Chicago, he is an expert in trade and regulatory affairs. McAleenan has never worked as a Border Patrol agent, but he rose to the upper ranks of U.S. Customs and Border Protection during Barack Obama’s administration, and he received a 2015 Presidential Rank Award, the country’s highest civil service prize.
McAleenan late last month was blunt about the situation on the U.S.-Mexico border, saying that the immigration enforcement system was at “the breaking point,” straining almost every aspect of U.S. operations there. Speaking in El Paso, McAleenan noted that crossings have been overwhelmed with hundreds of migrants seeking asylum daily, that Border Patrol stations have no room for detainees and that the immigration courts are backed up with hundreds of thousands of cases.
“That breaking point has arrived this week,” McAleenan said March 27, a day after the agency detained more than 4,100 migrants, the highest one-day total at the border in more than a decade.
A DHS official said McAleenan is a well-timed pick to engage Democrats as the Trump administration clamors for more money for border enforcement. The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said McAleenan could engage Democrats “a lot more effectively” than Nielsen because of his deeper understanding of the issues unfolding on the border.
John Sandweg, a former acting director of ICE under Obama and a top aide to then-DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano, said McAleenan is a quality leader who will do “an incredible job.”
“McAleenan is a very smart guy and very competent. He’s enforcement-focused but not an ideological figure,” Sandweg said. “This administration likes tough-talking, sound-bite guys, and that’s not Kevin. He’s not a big loud talker, or the kind of guy who will say outrageous things to sound tough.”
McAleenan drew immediate criticism Sunday, with Ronald Newman, political director of the American Civil Liberties Union, saying he aided Nielsen in carrying out “a sad and shameful chapter in the agency’s history,” including efforts to build a “pointless” border wall and the separation of migrant families last year.
“He has been key in implementing Trump and Nielsen’s unconscionable policies and has overseen countless of Border Patrol’s abuses,” Newman said.
During the past week, Trump has grappled with a response to the surge of migrants at the border, most notably by threatening to close off the U.S.-Mexico border but backing off within days after pleas from business leaders and Republican lawmakers, warning that a border closure could be devastating to the economy.
Trump toured the border in Calexico, Calif., on Friday and spoke at a roundtable with border and immigration officials to make a case to the public and Congress for tougher enforcement policies. Nielsen joined him on that trip and appeared at the roundtable.
Apprehensions at the southern border soared in March, to nearly 100,000 arrests compared with 58,000 in January, according to the DHS. Much of the surge is attributable to Central American families who are seeking asylum in the United States.
Robert Costa and Damian Paletta contributed to this report.