U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen addresses a convention of state secretaries of state, Saturday, July 14, 2018, in...
Mel Evans

Kirstjen Nielsen learns a lesson on the limits of Trump’s loyalty

Outgoing Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen did everything Donald Trump asked of her, up to and including separating children from the families and putting them in cages. Dana Milbank noted in his latest column:

Nobody debased herself quite as often as Nielsen did in her quest to keep the job, defending Trump after the “s—hole countries” and Charlottesville scandals, enduring frequent rebukes from Trump and leaks about her imminent firing, embracing his incendiary language and enduring his extralegal instincts, swallowing her moral misgivings to embrace the family-separation policy (while denying any such policy existed), and implausibly claiming that children weren’t being put in cages. […]

No amount of public disgrace could deter her from serving the president’s whims.

In theory, this may sound like the kind of debasement that would satisfy Trump, who prioritizes unflinching loyalty. And for a while, Nielsen’s willingness to say and do anything to advance the White House’s agenda likely extended her tenure at DHS.

But as many have learned before her, there are important limits to Trump’s sense of loyalty.

Indeed, it’s become a staple of the Republican’s presidency, even in foreign policy. Politico reported last summer, “Foreign leaders are learning that hand-holding, golf games, military parades and other efforts to personally woo President Donald Trump do not guarantee that Trump won’t burn them on key policy issues.”

The article quoted one former White House official saying, “Trump is very selfish and I think he views flattery as a one-way street where he gets flattered and then there’s no real reciprocal benefit going back the other direction.”

This clearly applies to domestic affairs, too. Jeff Sessions went to great lengths during his tenure as attorney general to make the White House happy, and for his trouble, Trump humiliated and fired him. Reince Priebus was sycophantic in support of the president as chief of staff, and he too was ousted in embarrassing fashion.

As we discussed last year, Trump’s brief political career has been marked, repeatedly, by his rejection of those who’ve shown him nothing but deference.

The president has made clear he sees loyalty as something he expects to receive, not bestow.