Kirstjen Nielsen has resigned from her post as Homeland Security Secretary. She was the “face” of the administration’s zero tolerance child separation policy, as many outlets have written, which means that she is the one person other than Trump who we most associate with toddlers and children being ripped from their parents’ arms at the border and put in cages. Unlike Trump, that’s all most of us know about Nielsen, and it’s all we’re ever going to know about her. For the rest of her life, however long or short it might be, Nielsen will remain in our minds as the monster who oversaw the systematic traumatizing of innocent children.
Of all the horrific policies we’ve seen enacted since Trump took office, Nielsen stood in front of the microphone to defend the most egregious—the one that offended us to such an intense degree that even this shameless administration had to finally buckle to the public outcry. The one that may not be resolved for years because they lost some of the children. That’s her legacy. That’s her life, and there’s no redemption awaiting her. “Zero tolerance” enrages us now, and should there ever come a time when this country shakes off the yoke of racist conservatism infecting it, we’ll look back on Nielsen as the avatar of our darkest modern hour. History will not be kind to her.
And I don’t think it’s unreasonable to wonder, as we contemplate the ongoing disgrace that awaits her in civilian life, what she got from the deal. We could debate how much of a soul she truly had left to sell when she became Trump’s Homeland Security czar—you don’t rise to that position with a clean conscience—but at the very least she was relatively anonymous in the big picture. So: For attaching her face and name to the horror of child separation, what’s the reward?
As usual with Trump, the answer is “nothing.” Worse than nothing, really. Like so many before her, she got kicked to the curb—she walked into her meeting with Trump on Sunday hoping for a “reasoned conversation,” per the Times, and with a plan to improve border security and her own relationship with the president. She walked out with nothing but a command: Resign. The reason? Ironically, because she wasn’t tough enough.
Read this paragraph from the Times about what it was like to work for Trump:
The president called Ms. Nielsen at home early in the mornings to demand that she take action to stop migrants from entering the country, including doing things that were clearly illegal, such as blocking all migrants from seeking asylum. She repeatedly noted the limitations imposed on her department by federal laws, court settlements and international obligations.
Those responses only infuriated Mr. Trump further. The president’s fury erupted in the spring of 2018 as Ms. Nielsen hesitated for weeks about whether to sign a memo ordering the routine separation of migrant children from their families so that the parents could be detained.
There’s a moral tragedy here: On some level, Nielsen knew what she was about to do was wrong. And then she did it anyway, but the sacrifice she made—becoming a national villain—was only met with more demands, more stress, more pressure to become crueler and more draconian, right up until the day when he effectively fired her.
(Interestingly, that language from the Times appears to be watered down from the original version, which claimed that Trump “berated” her in those calls.)
What about this:
He repeatedly demanded that she cut off foreign aid to Central American countries even though the funding was the responsibility of the State Department. She repeatedly deflected his demands.
Imagine forfeiting your identity, forever, for a boss like that! In the end, of course, he wouldn’t even let her break the news of her own departure—he had to tweet it himself.
When she published her own resignation letter later Sunday evening, Nielsen called her tenure “the honor of a lifetime.” Please. You don’t have to be inside her head to know that it was anything but—it was a nightmare job, perhaps the ultimate nightmare job. And unlike most nightmare jobs, this one will haunt her forever.
The scorn came from every direction—from celebrities, from elected officials, from rank-and-file civilians. Hers is the rare case where even high-ranking politicians, normally restrained in their rhetoric, refused to pull their punches:
But if the job was so bad, you might ask, why didn't she resign earlier? Well, she tried. Before Zero Tolerance became law, Trump yelled at her in a meeting, and it got so bad that she prepared her letter. Then she changed her mind, became a true believer (or at least acted like one), and now she belongs to history. According to Maggie Haberman, the story of why she hasn't resigned in recent months—even as her job grew more impossible and Trump's demands more unreasonable—is a story of dread:
That would almost be pitiable, if we weren’t talking about a monster.
Nielsen isn’t the first functionary to put herself on the line for Trump, and she isn’t the first to get burned. Nor will she be the last. Yet because of the family separation policy, she will be the epitome—the paradigmatic example of what happens when you sell your soul for an abusive boss who has no concept of loyalty, but a keen appreciation for scapegoats. Any reward is transitory; the pain lasts forever.
Kirstjen Nielsen, welcome to the rest of your life.