Abrupt departure is common fate for Trump officials
WASHINGTON – In recent months, Kirstjen Nielsen, secretary of homeland security, had become a regular presence eating dinner at the Trump International Hotel. She had been heckled and booed when dining out after becoming the face of some of President Trump’s most hard-line immigration policies, like family separations, and her affinity for the hotel, a gathering place for the president’s supporters, seemed like a sign that she felt safer on the inside.
But her status inside the White House, where she was subject to dressing-downs from Trump during Cabinet meetings and constant criticism by the president, was not much more secure.
So when Nielsen went to the White House on Sunday night to meet with the president to discuss some grievances, she was also prepared to avoid a messy end by letting Trump, who is known for not personally firing people, off the hook. After Trump made it clear that he was looking for a change, Nielsen told him she would resign, ridding him of a Cabinet secretary who had long disappointed him.
Nielsen’s departure, announced Sunday night, was abrupt but hardly unforeseen, the latest in a long and growing conga line of senior officials who have left the administration unceremoniously because of their own frustrations with the president, or because of the president’s obvious disappointment in them. Usually, it is both.
Trump has ripped into Nielsen, holding her personally responsible for the uptick in crossings at the southwestern border. And Nielsen wanted to tell Trump that she was upset not to have been notified beforehand about his sudden withdrawal of Ron Vitiello, the nominee to serve as Immigration and Customs Enforcement director, and that she was frustrated at being pulled from security meetings in Europe last week and ordered to appear by the president’s side on a trip to the border, according to someone close to Nielsen.
The end for Nielsen was something that has become familiar in the Trump administration: a high-ranking official like former Attorney General Jeff Sessions or former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson leaving with a reputation in need of rehabilitation.
“Normally, people just resign,” said Ronald Klain, who served as chief of staff to Vice President Joe Biden. “The president sends word through an intermediary that he’s unhappy, and you resign. The president says something nice about them and then they leave.
“But here, quitting enough,” Klain said.
Some exits have been more humiliating than others. Since the departure of Tillerson, Trump has referred to him as “dumb as a rock” and “lazy as hell.” After calling the departure of his former defense Secretary Jim Mattis a “retirement” and praising his service, Trump turned on him once he understood that the resignation was an affront to him.
“What’s he done for me?” Trump said of Mattis. “How had he done in Afghanistan? Not too good.”
After years of haranguing Sessions in public and in private, Trump sent isn’t good his then-Chief of Staff John Kelly to demand Sessions’ resignation in November, and Trump has not let up on him since he left office. In a speech in front of the Conservative Political Action Conference in March, Trump mimicked Sessions’ Southern accent while discussing his decision to recuse himself from the special counsel’s investigation into Russian meddling during the 2016 campaign.
Kelly later suffered his own ignoble end. After he and Trump ironed out a departure plan at the end of 2018, Kelly planned to make his own announcement at a senior staff dinner at the White House. But the president chose to break the news first, telling reporters that Kelly would be departing at the end of December.
Although all involved tried to put the best face on the Sunday meeting between Trump and Nielsen – someone familiar with it said the president had even asked her if she would want to return in another position – the two competed afterward for how to spin its contents.
Within minutes of the meeting’s end, Trump wrote on Twitter that Nielsen was “leaving her position,” making it sound as if she was the latest Cabinet secretary he had ousted online. Nielsen then posted her resignation letter on Twitter, notably leaving out any mention or praise for Trump. Trump has yet to criticize her publicly since. But Nielsen has already absorbed more than her share of criticism for her role in implementing the president’s policies.
With a few exceptions, like the smooth send-off for Nikki Haley, former ambassador to the United Nations, and a glowing farewell to Linda McMahon, former administrator of the Small Business Administration, Trump’s top aides often find themselves damaged by their former boss in real time, or on delay.
Even those who have managed to stay in Trump’s favor, like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, have a sense of gallows humor about what might ultimately befall them.
“I’ll be there until he tweets me out of the office,” Pompeo recently joked at an event in his home state of Kansas, when asked about his future in politics.