Somebody got to Kirstjen Nielsen to make her the defiant cheerleader for the most inhumane government policy since Japanese internment.
It was just weeks ago that on the issues of separating families at the border Nielsen was more on the side of Mrs. Trump than Mr. Trump. But that was before she learned that showing any ambivalence about zero tolerance and all it entailed was the wrong side to be on. After a tongue-lashing from Trump the likes of which staffers in the room had never seen, she considered resigning, according to friends, but buckled to his will instead.
She had as her example in this her former boss and mentor, Gen. John Kelly, whose family she joins for holiday dinners. He sold his soul when he took to the press room podium and cited his own son’s death to deflect criticism from Trump’s smearing of a Gold Star family.
She followed in his footsteps on Monday, at the very same podium, answering reporter’s questions as pictures of Trump’s gambit to take children forcibly from their parents filled the airwaves. In place of Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who may have finally reached her limit on defending the indefensible, Nielsen insisted that “Congress is the one that needs to fix” family separation, and “to fund our ability to hold families together through the immigration process” as if togetherness were the goal.
Of course, the cost of her program is $775 per child per day instead of $300 per family prior. Fraud, fake families, an upsurge in applicants are all to blame. Preposterously, she said that the “vast majority” of children were sent alone, so therefore, there was no separation. She boasted, “We give them meals and we give them education and we give them medical care. We give them toys, TV and videos” — everything a child could ask for.
As it turns out, the dissembling was for nothing. Within two days, Trump abandoned the new policy in the face of bitter criticism. Without admitting to the gratuitous cruelty or amorality, and to make the point it’s all Democrats’ fault, he said he would sign an executive order when, with a mere nod of his head, he could reverse his previous nod of the head that put the program in effect.
Trump goes back and forth on what the point of it all was but his chief immigration guru Stephen Miller and chief of staff Kelly do not. Trump was holding children hostage to hold the Congress hostage to his whims on immigration: building his wall, ending the lottery, letting in only white people on merit. He only stopped because it was backfiring with just about everyone, even the supine members of Congress, even evangelicals who tolerate all manner of heresy, even the airlines.
It’s not too late for Trump to recover—he went around the table of legislators at the White House on Wednesday where he announced the change as if he hadn’t cause the crisis, to have each of them lavishly praise him to restore his ego, wounded by coming perilously close to admitting a mistake.
But it is too late for Nielsen, who lacks Trump’s bully pulpit or the con man’s ability to convince his followers that down is up. One of the few people on her side was Corey Lewandowski, Trump confidante and his former campaign manager, not in jail, who said “womp, womp” when told a child with Down’s Syndrome had been removed from his mother. That’s hardly enough to help.
She’s imprinted in the public’s mind as the Cruella De Ville of immigration. Was she unaware that Trump often sends out women—Kellyanne Conway, Nikki Haley, Sanders, Melania, Ivanka—as human shields? When she went to an upscale Mexican restaurant Tuesday evening—to celebrate, for the enchiladas, to be close to Hispanics slaving over a hot stove, ironically—she was heckled by a few and then roundly booed by most of the diners. To put this in perspective, Washington is a blasé city after hours. Dick Cheney could walk into any restaurant during the Iraq war he started on false pretenses with little fear of being embarrassed.
Her perfidy is almost as lasting. In the way she described the circumstances of the children’s internment, you would think the shiny toys, the sippy cups, the new sneakers turned human kennels into Disneyland. Anyone who’s been briefly separated from a child in the grocery store knows heartstopping fear. And that’s amid the cereal boxes and for a few moments. Some of these families separated over the last six weeks will never be reunited. The ones that are will never get over it.
Nielsen’s chances of survival in Trumpville are fair. Who would take her job? All but two of Trump’s original team are gone. It’s so bad that the White House personnel office—known mainly for not vetting anyone and holding drinking parties in the office “to lift morale”—are participating in a job fair in the desperate hope of luring new recruits. What’s more Trump tends to keep his fallen aides like grifter-in-residence Scott Pruitt. Bad headlines are fine. It’s good ones that overshadow the king that will kill you. Ask Steve Bannon, late of the cover of Time Magazine.
As for life outside the White House, for disgraced Trump officials, there is always a job, no matter their slavish service to a man without scruples. Those not in jail or close to indictment are working on Wall Street or law firms, writing books or pontificating on cable TV. But with Nielsen we may have found someone unemployable in the Washington aftermarket. She denied she was involved in child abuse. She came so close, the swamp may decide otherwise.