WASHINGTON – Kirstjen Nielsen has a hard-earned presidential signing of the pen.
President Donald Trump used the black marker until Wednesday, and with the signing of an executive order cessation of the family separations on the border of the V. S., then gave it to Nielsen, his Homeland Security secretary.
These pens are usually framed and displayed in the lobby and in the office, waiting on Washington as trophies of the presidential proximity and strength. Nielsen’s is harder to come by than most.
By the time that Trump used it to reverse his policies, Nielsen had both scolded and praised by Trump and pilloried for repeating his lies. She was forced to deny that the policy amounted to child abuse. On Tuesday night, they were briefly a work dinner at a Mexican restaurant after the protesters cried out “Shame!”, until, finally, she left.
But there she was Wednesday in the Oval Office, right in the Trump’s hand, as he reversed the policy they had defended and had promised the administration would not apologize for.
With Vice-President Mike Pence in Trump is the opposite shoulder, the president invited Nielsen to speak. She thanked him for his leadership.
“Good job,” Trump said over his shoulder to her. He signed the order and gave Nielsen the pen.
With that Nielsen was apparently back in the president’s good graces. But fair or not, the Georgetown and the University of Virginia-trained lawyer will probably always be the face of a policy that inflamed almost everywhere indignation.
According to people close to the secretary, family separations were not her idea. A person who, like the others, spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly, said Nielsen had been “working nonstop” to find a solution.
The polarizing path Nielsen has taken is somewhat surprising, for a government bureaucrat and policy wonk known for her loyalty to the White House chief of staff John Kelly and her expertise in the field of cyber security than for hard-line immigration views espoused by Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the White House advisor Stephen Miller.
Nielsen, 46, was considered an expert in both domestic and national security policy, who worked in President George W. Bush’s administration and had a role in the treatment of the Hurricane Katrina.
Two years after the 2005 hurricanes, Congress issued reports that faulted the White House Homeland Security Council — where Nielsen is focused on preparedness and for it not to take the lead in staying on top of the progress of the disaster.
Next Trump card for the election, Nielsen joined the transition team to help Kelly through the confirmation process to be Trump’s secretary of Homeland Security. Nielsen quickly won the retired general confidence, impressing him with her work ethic and command of the issues.
Trump eventually tapped Nielsen to take over as head of the DHS, and the Senate confirmed her Dec. 5.
In April, Sessions would be “zero tolerance” on the border for people crossing illegally. That meant that anyone who does not arrive at a designated port of entry and claimed asylum would be arrested.
As the public backlash grew, Nielsen mislead the public by denying that the separation of families is a part of US policy. While the policy never specifically called for the children to be taken from the parents, a separation became inevitable. That’s because adults were arrested and charged — and that of any children travelling with them could not go to prison.
Nielsen, like Trump, has also suggested that it is up to Congress to fix the problem — even though the enforcement of laws happens in the president’s discretion. The Bush and Obama administrations largely allowed families to stay together.
While her allies say that they only have to follow the law, it is likely there was another reason Nielsen tirelessly defended the policy: She has a track record of working to make her bosses happy. Also her history with Trump was bumpy. Earlier this spring, Trump had unloaded at Nielsen, during a cabinet meeting about an increase of the border, fears, and legal setbacks, according to people familiar with the exchange, but not allowed to speak publicly.
Nielsen, one person said, tried to explain that the issues are complex and that the department’s powers were limited by legal restrictions. She told the president her team, did everything he could, but the president was left unconvinced.
After the news of the dressing-down spread, Nielsen did not deny the meeting had grown heated, and issued a statement to say: “I share his frustration.”
Associated Press writers Colleen Long and Jill Colvin contributed to this report.
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