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Trump Confirms Nielsen Is Leaving Department Of Homeland Security


Kirstjen Nielsen may be best remembered as the public face of President Trump's zero tolerance immigration policy that led to the separation of thousands of migrant families who crossed the border illegally. This is Nielsen, the Homeland Security secretary, announcing the policy last summer.


KIRSTJEN NIELSEN: What has changed is that we no longer exempt entire classes of people who break the law. Everyone is subject to prosecution. When DHS refers a case against a parent or legal guardian for criminal prosecution, the parent or legal guardian will be placed into the U.S. Marshals Service custody for pretrial determination, pursuant to an order by a federal judge, and any accompanying child will be transferred to the Department of Health and Human Services and will be reclassified as an unaccompanied alien child.

GREENE: Kirstjen Nielsen there. Well, yesterday President Trump announced that Secretary Nielsen has resigned. This follows months of rumors that she was clashing with the administration internally over its border policies, even as she defended them publicly. The president also said that the current commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Kevin McAleenan, would become acting secretary.

David Lapan is with me. He is former press secretary for the Department of Homeland Security. He and Nielsen worked together at the department when it was led by Secretary John Kelly. He's also a retired Marine colonel who spent 30 years in the military. Thanks so much for being here.

DAVID LAPAN: Good morning, David.

GREENE: So what do you make of this resignation? Why is Kirstjen Nielsen leaving?

LAPAN: Well, it's certainly clear, as you mentioned, that she's been at the point of this immigration issue. She's been in a pressure cooker, not only in the position, but with the White House. So I can imagine, over the months that this has gone on, it's been very difficult for her to try to lead the entire Department of Homeland Security with a president who is very much overly focused on one aspect of DHS' mission, and that's the border enforcement.

GREENE: So is it more a matter of micromanagement, dealing with a boss who is just very interested in the subject that you cover? Or were there fundamental disagreements between her and the president on his border policies?

LAPAN: I don't have that level of insight to know exactly what it is. I suspect it's a little of both. Again, the president's made it very clear that that he feels very strongly about this topic, and as somebody trying to lead the department, you're going to be subject to getting his views and his frustrations very directly.

GREENE: When she defended the policy that was so controversial leading to family separation, I mean, did you think that you were seeing someone who believed in that policy or who was representing her boss?

LAPAN: My view is that she was representing her boss, and in many ways, again, that's the role that the secretary plays. Remember, too, that what really started that policy, or what led to that, was the zero tolerance policy put in place by the attorney general. So at the time, I thought that should have been the attorney general that they're having to send the policy and not the secretary of Homeland Security.

GREENE: What do you think this departure means for the president's border policies? I mean, he also said that he's dropping his nominee to head ICE, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The president said that he wants to go in a tougher direction. I mean, what does all this mean, and what does a tougher direction mean?

LAPAN: Well, it certainly doesn't bode well that, again, the signature issue for this president has been about border enforcement and immigration, and now you're walking into a situation with no transition. Remember, Secretary Nielsen's resignation letter was effective yesterday. So there's no transition period, and you're going to have an acting secretary of Homeland Security, you're going to have an acting commissioner of Border - Customs and Border Protection, and you're going to have an acting director of ICE, all at the same time; a lot of confusion, a lot of missed opportunities.

So if the president feels strongly about immigration, introducing more confusion into the system doesn't seem to be a good way to approach it.

GREENE: I mean, one of the tougher policies that President Trump has talked about is the idea of closing the southern border between the United States and Mexico. I mean, from your experience within this administration, do you think that is just a threat, or do you think that's serious?

LAPAN: I think it's just a threat - one, because it's physically impossible to do, and two, because of the impact that that would have on legal trade that goes across that border every single day, millions and millions of dollars. So the economic damage that that would cause I think would keep the president from following through, but he's also shown, again, that he believes threats are a way to get people to change their behavior.

GREENE: We just have a few seconds left, but in a sentence or two, can you sort of summarize what you think is Kirstjen Nielsen's legacy?

LAPAN: Well, unfortunately, again, I think she's going to be known specifically for this issue, when she came to the job with lots of skills in cybersecurity and other - and tried to do those things within the context of being secretary. But unfortunately, I think her legacy is going to be just this issue.

GREENE: David Lapan was former press secretary for the Department of Homeland Security. Thanks a lot.

LAPAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.