The location of Kirstjen Nielsen, the embattled leader of the Department of Homeland Security, on April 1 was like a bad joke for a president who vowed to curb unauthorized immigration but was now showing signs of panic as border crossings spiked to the highest levels in more than a decade.
Except no one was laughing, and Trump was livid. Nielsen was in London, then headed for Stockholm and Paris, to huddle with U.S. allies on counterterrorism and cybersecurity issues. Although Nielsen aides had informed the White House of the trip, Trump complained to her on the phone that she was out of town while the border was, in his words, out of control, according to officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a private conversation.
Nielsen, who had barely hung on to her job during previous run-ins with Trump, cut her trip short and flew back to Washington. Upon returning, she furiously tried to save her job. Nielsen convened emergency calls with White House aides and Cabinet officials to urge them to help her on immigration, White House officials said. She ordered U.S. Customs and Border Protection to deploy “emergency surge operations,” shifting up to 750 officers from other duties to help the overwhelmed Border Patrol. But by then it was too late.
Trump was souring again on Nielsen over her opposition to his demands that DHS reinstate the family separation policy that the president had reversed last summer after a political backlash. Trump considered firing her upon her return, aides said, and though he held off briefly, Nielsen’s fate was sealed.
In the end, Trump chose not to close the border but instead turned his ire on his senior DHS leadership team: He forced out Nielsen and rescinded the Senate nomination of a career official to lead Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Trump named CBP Commissioner Kevin McAleenan to take over DHS in an acting capacity.
The goal, White House aides said, is to create a more assertive agency, but some administration officials are privately concerned that Trump, influenced by senior adviser Stephen Miller, a border hawk, will hire only “yes men” who will not stand up to a president whose orders have, in many instances, been blocked by federal courts.
Trump’s increasingly erratic behavior over the past 12 days — since he first threatened to seal the border in a series of tweets on March 29 — has alarmed top Republicans, business officials and foreign leaders who fear that his emotional response might exacerbate problems at the border, harm the U.S. economy and degrade national security.
The stretch also has revealed that a president who has routinely blamed spiking immigration numbers on others — past presidents, congressional Democrats, Mexican authorities, federal judges, human smugglers — is now coming to the realization that the problems are closer to home. Though his aides have taken the fall, and it is unlikely that Trump will blame himself, the president is facing an existential political crisis ahead of his 2020 reelection bid over the prospect of failure on his top domestic priority.
"He was politically grandstanding for his base, for his reelection, and not thinking through a plan," said Domingo Garcia, president of the League of United Latin American Citizens, who has met with White House senior adviser Jared Kushner, the president's son-in-law, to discuss immigration reform. "He has no plan except to talk about immigration as a political piñata to score points with the far right. But illegal immigration has increased in the two years he has been president."
At the White House on Tuesday, Trump reiterated his criticism of Democrats, who have rejected his legislative proposals to speed up deportations and build a border wall, and the federal courts, which have blocked some of his administration’s most aggressive actions. This week, a federal judge issued an injunction halting a program requiring Central Americans to wait in Mexico as their asylum cases are adjudicated. White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said the administration would appeal the ruling.
U.S. immigration laws are “the worst laws of any country anywhere in the world,” Trump said. He denied wanting to reinstate the policy that separated more than 2,700 children from their parents last summer and repeated false assertions that the Obama administration had first implemented that practice.
He added that without a strong deterrence message, migrants “are coming like it’s a picnic, because, ‘Let’s go to Disneyland.’ ”
A flash-bang of tweets
It was Trump who was visiting a resort, his private Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Fla., when he posted the tweets on March 29 that exploded like a flash-bang grenade, shocking the senses of Washington’s political class, business leaders and foreign officials.
“If Mexico doesn’t immediately stop ALL illegal immigration coming into the United States through our Southern Border, I will be CLOSING . . . the Border, or large sections of the Border, next week,” Trump wrote.
At a tour of infrastructure at the state’s Lake Okeechobee later that day, Trump told reporters that he also had ordered a halt of $500 million in U.S. aid to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, the Northern Triangle countries responsible for the surge in migration.
The threats came just days after DHS announced that the number of border arrests had swelled to more than 100,000 in March — the highest monthly total in a dozen years. Nielsen had sent a four-page letter to Congress pleading for emergency funds to avert a systemwide “meltdown.”
News of Trump’s tweets ricocheted through the region. In San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador, a bipartisan congressional delegation was gathered at the residence of U.S. Ambassador Jean Elizabeth Manes, who was appointed in 2015 under President Barack Obama and is one of the few holdovers in the Trump administration.
The lawmakers were receiving a briefing on the success that El Salvador, with U.S. assistance, has had in reducing violent crime, when an aide informed them of the president’s threats. In contrast to Guatemala and Honduras, Salvadoran migration to the United States has decreased in recent years, and U.S. officials have touted progress in battling the transnational MS-13 gang in that country.
The mood became “very dejected,” Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D-N.Y.), who was in the meeting, recalled in an interview. “Everybody was very upset and concerned that this was happening.”
Trump’s threats cast a pall over the rest of the trip. The next day, the lawmakers met with Salvadoran president-elect Niyab Bukele, who had visited Washington in mid-March. Bukele joked that he hadn’t even been sworn in and Trump was already taking away his money.
“He said he needs the U.S. as a partner,” Espaillat recalled.
In Washington, similar angst was spreading among lobbyists for the nation’s biggest businesses. At the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, officials had been told a day before Trump’s tweets that the White House was considering bolder, but vaguely defined, steps to manage the border crisis, according to two people familiar with the matter.
Over the weekend, as Trump spent two days at one of his Florida golf courses, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce heard from business owners who had begun emergency contingency planning. On April 1, the day Trump called Nielsen in London, Neil Bradley, the group’s chief policy officer, issued a statement opposing a border shutdown.
The next day, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) warned that sealing border ports would have a “potentially catastrophic economic impact,” and Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), whose state exported $97.7 billion in goods to Mexico in 2017, pleaded with Trump in a phone call to reconsider.
In an interview, Cornyn said he warned the president of the potential unintended consequences of acting out of frustration, and Trump asked him to collaborate with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin on other ideas.
“I told him I’d be happy to work with him and his administration,” Cornyn said. “But sealing off the border is not a solution.”
That same day, Cornyn told 200 members of the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce that he would fight against closing the border, drawing an ovation. Ramiro Cavazos, the group’s president, said Trump’s disparaging rhetoric against Mexico and hard line immigration policies have hampered cross-border investment.
“We think a lot of the drama that has occurred . . . is making America look very bad to the rest of the world,” Cavazos said.
Nielsen’s trip to Europe was planned around the Group of Seven meeting of interior ministers in Paris at the end of last week — the type of multilateral collaboration that Trump has largely rejected.
But David Lapan, a former DHS spokesman, said the itinerary illustrated that Nielsen’s duties at DHS — a massive agency with 229,000 employees that was created in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks — extended far beyond immigration.
“Counterterrorism and aviation security and election security and cybersecurity — all are things the secretary should be engaging our partners on,” said Lapan, now at the Bipartisan Policy Center. “But now you’re being pulled back to this one, singular focus.”
Flying home on a Coast Guard jet, Nielsen was angry that Trump had announced the elimination of aid to Central America one day after she announced a new border security compact with the Northern Triangle countries. Nielsen told associates that she blamed Miller for goading Trump to act, current and former White House officials said.
In a meeting on March 28, a day before Trump’s tweets, Nielsen repeatedly urged him not to close the border, said officials with knowledge of the meeting, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity. She also asked Trump for more operational control over negotiations with Mexico and protested that she was not informed of decisions affecting her own agency, said White House aides who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the private talks.
Meanwhile, Miller lobbied the president to make a wholesale overhaul among DHS leadership, telling him that senior officials, including Lee Cissna, the director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, had slow-walked regulations aimed at curbing migration. Miller even argued that some of the DHS leadership was fearful of damage to their public reputations if they backed Trump’s hard-line agenda, the White House officials said.
Others have defended Cissna, including Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), who issued a warning to the White House on Monday not to remove him from his job.
By the time she returned from London, Nielsen had been steamrolled in the power struggle. On Thursday, Trump abruptly reversed his border threats, telling reporters that he believed Mexico was cracking down on Central American migrants and that he would give Mexican officials a one-year warning.
“He made a threat, he saw some action, and that’s the way he rolls,” Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) said in an interview, defending Trump’s moves. “It works for him.”
But that evening, the White House yanked the Senate nomination of Ronald Vitiello, a former CBP official, to lead ICE, a decision made without Nielsen’s input, according to officials. The move was so abrupt that White House officials initially indicated to the Senate that the withdrawal was a mistake, according to two officials familiar with the matter. A day later, Trump told reporters he intended to go in a “tougher” direction.
On Sunday, Trump summoned Nielsen to the White House and asked her to resign.
Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank that supports lower immigration levels, joked that the situation at the DHS is akin to “The Apprentice: Washington, D.C., Edition” for a president who has been reduced to auditioning candidates to stop the migrant flow.
Trump is facing a 2020 campaign in which immigration again will be a “defining issue for him,” Krikorian said. “He needs to be seen by voters as having done every conceivable thing he can possibly do.”
As for Nielsen, Trump said she could remain in another administration job, but officials said she told colleagues she’s not interested.
Nick Miroff contributed to this report.