It’s easy to forget just how massive the Department of Homeland Security is. The nation’s newest cabinet agency, created in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, has nearly a quarter of a million employees, tackling a wide variety of tasks: DHS includes everything from FEMA to Customs and Border Protection to the Secret Service.It’s therefore important for Americans to have confidence, not only in the department, but in its leadership. With this in mind, yesterday was an important day for Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, who’s only been on the job for a month, and who was confirmed to the important post despite a controversial record stemming from her tenure in the Bush/Cheney administration.
When Nielsen testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee, it was, for all intents and purposes, the public’s first real opportunity to meet the new head of this important cabinet agency.
I don’t think it went especially well. The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank highlighted one of the most memorable moments from the hearing:
I knew that Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, when she appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, would deny that Trump said what the whole world knows he said: that he wants immigrants from Norway rather than from “shithole” countries in Africa.
What I was not expecting was that Nielsen would raise a question about whether Norwegians are mostly white.
Yes, Nielsen, who was in the room during Trump’s racist comments last week, faced a series of exchanges, in which she clumsily tried to defend her boss while not lying under oath. At one point, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) noted that the president supports immigration from Norway, which has a largely white population.
After fumbling a bit, the DHS secretary – whose name, again, is Kirstjen Nielsen – replied, “I actually do not know that, sir.”
It’s awfully tough to get a second chance at a first impression. And while I hope there are no major national crises during Nielsen’s tenure, I wonder what would happen if she has to brief the public about an emergency, and many Americans are left to wonder, “Isn’t she the one who wasn’t sure if Norway has a lot of white people?”
Update: In his new column, Roll Call’s Walter Shapiro marveled at Nielsen’s rhetorical contortions during yesterday’s hearing. “[T]o achieve the requisite level of blandness under oath,” he wrote, “Nielsen had to display a lack of curiosity, faulty memory and demographic ignorance unmatched since Sean Spicer left the White House briefing room.”