Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, March 6, 2019, before the House Homeland Security Committee.

Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, March 6, 2019, before the House Homeland Security Committee. AP Photo/Susan Walsh

Shakeup at Homeland Security as Border Pressures Mount

President Trump pledged to go in a "tougher" direction after withdrawing his nomination to lead ICE on Friday and accepting Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen's resignation on Sunday.

Just days after traveling to the U.S.-Mexico border to deal with a surge in migrants crossing from Latin America, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen is stepping down. President Trump announced Nielsen’s abrupt resignation in a tweet Sunday evening.

“I am pleased to announce that Kevin McAleenan, the current U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner, will become Acting Secretary for@DHSgov. I have confidence that Kevin will do a great job!” Trump tweeted.

Nielsen’s departure follows Trump’s growing anger about the border crisis; at one point last week he threatened to close the border to all traffic, alarming both Democrats and Republicans with what many believe would be an economically devastating move. He later backed off on that threat, saying he would give Mexico a year to stem the tide of drugs and migrants flowing into the United States.

On Friday, Trump surprised members of Congress by withdrawing from consideration his nominee to lead the department’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, Ronald Vitiello, telling reporters, “We’re going in a tougher direction.”

Nielsen has long had a difficult relationship with the president, who came into office promising to drastically curtail immigration, both legal and illegal. According to the New York Times, “Multiple White House officials said she had grown deeply paranoid in recent months, after numerous stories about her job being on the line. She also had supported the ICE nominee Mr. Trump withdrew, Ronald D. Vitiello, and her support for him was described as problematic for her with the president.”

The shakeup at Homeland Security leaves the department with key vacancies at a critical time. Under Trump, ICE has not had a permanent leader, while Homeland Security will soon have its third leader in less than three years. (Retired Marine Gen. John Kelly served as Trump’s first Homeland Security secretary before becoming White House chief of staff. He departed the administration in December.)  

Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, characterized Nielsen’s tenure at the department as a “disaster,” but put most of the blame for that on the president’s “terrible and cruel policies.” In a statement, he said, “This could not come at a worse time for the day to day management of the Department of Homeland Security and the over 220,000 employees that need leadership in order to best help keep the country secure. There is now currently no permanent secretary nor deputy secretary at the department. The Department will quickly need proven, Senate-confirmed leaders in place that can work with Congress in good faith to help keep the country safe and to fix the Trump-inflicted situation at the border.”

Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., the committee’s ranking member, said, “Secretary Nielsen served her country honorably as Homeland Security secretary, despite facing numerous challenges including dire conditions at our southwest border. Although Commissioner McAleenan will have his work cut out for him, I am confident the department is in capable hands. I look forward to working with McAleenan in his new role and to learning who the president intends to nominate on a permanent basis.”