Abrupt de­par­ture is com­mon fate for Trump of­fi­cials

The Buffalo News - - WASHINGTON NEWS - By An­nie Karni and Mag­gie Haber­man

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.

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