U.S. President Donald Trump addresses members of his cabinet and the news media as he holds a cabinet meeting at the White House in Washington, U.S., August...
Kevin Lamarque

Nielsen’s DHS resignation leaves Trump’s cabinet in a precarious state

Updated

According to Donald Trump, there’s an ongoing national emergency along the United States’ southern border. As of yesterday, the president is comfortable trying to address this “crisis” without his Homeland Security secretary.

Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen is leaving her position, President Donald Trump said on Twitter Sunday.

Kevin McAleenan, commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, will become acting secretary pending confirmation of Nielsen’s successor, Trump said.

Nielsen was asked to the White House after Trump expressed frustrations, including over not being able to seal the border, during the week, according to a senior U.S. official. It was up to her to convince him to keep her, the official added.

Evidently, the secretary proved unpersuasive.

Nielsen is the eighth member of Trump’s cabinet to step down, following EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, HHS Secretary Tom Price, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, VA Secretary David Shulkin, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and Small Business Administration Administrator Linda McMahon‎.(Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly also gave up his post, though he became White House chief of staff.)

The DHS chief said she’ll stay on through Wednesday “to assist with an orderly transition,” which seemed like a curious thing to say. The Department of Homeland Security is a massive federal bureaucracy, and a smooth leadership transition – to an acting director whose appointment is already drawing legal questions – takes more than 72 hours.

It was also of interest that Nielsen’s resignation letter made no reference to Donald Trump. James Mattis’ letter, as he departed the Pentagon, didn’t either. It’s almost as if top officials on this president’s team weren’t especially impressed with him and take no pride in having served on his cabinet.

These developments do not entirely come out of nowhere. About a year ago, Trump scolded Nielsen in front of the rest of the White House cabinet, reportedly for half an hour, prompting her to draft a resignation letter that was never submitted. There were multiple reports of her looming ouster in the fall, and after her greatest champion – former White House Chief of Staff John Kelly – left the West Wing, her days in the administration appeared numbered.

Nielsen’s difficulties were not, however, limited to her failures to impress her volatile boss. It was last summer, for example, when the outgoing DHS chief inexplicably wrote via Twitter, in defiance of reality, “We do not have a policy of separating families at the border. Period.”

Around the same time, Nielsen expressed skepticism about U.S. intelligence on Russia’s support for Trump’s candidacy during its 2016 election attack. That followed Senate testimony Nielsen gave in which she said she didn’t know that Norway’s population is largely white.

Her willingness to embarrass herself and tarnish her own credibility appeared to be part of a shameless strategy: Nielsen sought to satisfy the White House’s often outrageous demands. But 15 months of advancing Trump’s agenda, up to and including separating families at the border and implementing a brutal “zero tolerance” policy, wasn’t enough for the president.

It led House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to note yesterday, “It is deeply alarming that the Trump Administration official who put children in cages is reportedly resigning because she is not extreme enough for the White House’s liking.”

But as the DHS chief exits the stage, it’s also worth pausing to appreciate what’s become of Trump’s cabinet.

As of this week, Trump has an acting Homeland Security secretary. And an acting Defense secretary. And an acting Interior secretary. And an acting ambassador to the United Nations. And an acting head of the Small Business Administration. (For some reason, the president even has an acting White House chief of staff, though unlike the other posts, this one doesn’t require Senate confirmation.)

Two months ago, Trump said, “Really, I like acting because I can move so quickly. It gives me more flexibility.” David Graham had a good piece soon after in The Atlantic, noting, “No matter how much Trump likes the flexibility, the Constitution doesn’t: It requires the president to put nominees to Senate approval in part to avoid chaotic policy making and mismanagement of government…. Trump, however, isn’t bothering. He doesn’t care whether the Senate has a role, and apparently he’d rather it not, because that makes it easier for him to fire people.

If the White House had to worry about Democratic senators blocking the president’s nominees, this might be vaguely more defensible. But as we discussed at the time, given the Republicans’ Senate majority, and the fact that it’s no longer possible for senators to filibuster cabinet nominees, Team Trump has no excuse.

Even some in his party are getting tired of it. Referring to the acting officials in Trump’s cabinet, Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) told the Washington Post in February, “It’s a lot, it’s way too many. You want to have confirmed individuals there because they have a lot more authority to be able to make decisions and implement policy when you have a confirmed person in that spot.”

It’s up to Trump to address the problem. Will he?