President Donald Trump’s frustration with Kirstjen Nielsen, which boiled over Wednesday in a Cabinet meeting tirade, has been growing for weeks — stoked by associates who have privately made the case that she’s a closeted “never Trumper” who still doesn’t fully back his agenda.
Trump’s advisers have been increasingly criticizing the Homeland Security chief in private conversations with the president, arguing that she isn’t doing enough to improve border security and noting that she wasn’t a vocal Trump supporter during the campaign, three people familiar with the internal discussions told POLITICO.
As a result, Trump has come to believe that Nielsen — who considered quitting this week after the president berated her over an uptick in migrant arrests — is not focused enough on carrying out his immigration agenda, one of the people said. The president has told friends that he believes chief of staff John Kelly, with whom he has a strained relationship, foisted his deputy Nielsen upon him, according to two of the people, complaining that he didn’t know what he was getting.
“He was surprised, after Kelly pushed for her nomination, to learn that she was a Bushie in the 43 administration and was not a Trump supporter during the campaign,” one former administration official said.
For now at least, Nielsen is staying put. Fox News reported Friday afternoon that Trump called Nielsen this week to implore her not to quit. And White House press secretary Sarah Sanders told reporters on Friday the president still backs Nielsen: “As we’ve said many times before, if the president no longer has confidence in a Cabinet member, he’ll let you know.”
A DHS spokesman said Nielsen “is committed to carrying out President Trump’s security-focused agenda of securing our borders, enforcing our immigration laws and empowering DHS frontline personnel to do their jobs.” Nielsen said in a statement Thursday that she shares Trump’s “frustration” about unauthorized border crossings and “will continue to direct the department to do all we can to implement the president’s security-focused agenda.”
She’s the latest senior administration official to bear the brunt of the president’s obsession with keeping “never Trump” Republicans out of his administration, a preoccupation that hobbled efforts to recruit appointees into the State Department and National Security Council early in Trump’s presidency because of the number of experienced George W. Bush administration alumni who signed letters opposing him during the campaign.
Nielsen doesn’t appear to have publicly criticized Trump during the campaign or since. She served on the White House Homeland Security Council under George W. Bush, worked as a consultant advising private companies and government officials on infrastructure and cyber security before joining the Trump administration as chief of staff to Kelly at DHS. She followed Kelly into the White House as his deputy in July 2017.
Nielsen struggled to find allies in the West Wing as she helped Kelly impose order in the aftermath of Reince Priebus’ ouster, earning the nickname “Nurse Ratched” from her colleagues—a reference to the vicious head nurse who presided over the asylum in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”
But Trump’s apparent distaste for her dates back to late 2017, after he nominated her to succeed Kelly at DHS. Nielsen told senators during her confirmation hearing that government officials “owe” DACA recipients a permanent solution and added, “There is no need for a wall from sea to shining sea.”
On the surface, Nielsen’s comments seemed mundane. Her quip about the border wall was almost a verbatim recitation of then-DHS secretary Kelly’s remarks from earlier that year and Trump himself had been pushing Congress to find a long-term answer to DACA.
Trump’s conservative supporters nonetheless pounced — and the president himself was listening to their complaints. Fox Business Network host Lou Dobbs, who regularly speaks privately with the president, called Nielsen’s comments “outrageous” during his primetime show and his guest, former White House aide Seb Gorka, added, “She has a track record before coming into government of being pro-open borders.” Ann Coulter dubbed Nielsen an “open borders zealot.”
Trump, in the words of one person close to him, was “livid” about conservatives’ reaction to Nielsen. Axios reported last week that Trump considered pulling her nomination, prompting Kelly to threaten he’d quit.
The president’s relationship with Nielsen, who increasingly has become the face of his immigration policy, never fully recovered.
“The department is crumbling and she is actively being undermined by Trump appointees and career folks simply do not like her,” said one former Bush administration official who worked with Nielsen, who added: “No one on the outside has any sympathy for her. She treated people the same way she’s being treated.”
Annie Karni contributed to this story.