Kirstjen Nielsen, the Homeland Security Director at the Center of the Storm

Kirstjen Nielsen, the Homeland Security Director at the Center of the Storm

Why you should care

Because she will be implementing any new immigration policy.

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By Tuesday, the latest storm to engulf the White House — this one a Category 5 shitholestorm — had spiraled into a “He said, he said” between members of the U.S. Senate regarding President Donald Trump’s incendiary comments about Haiti and some African countries during an Oval Office meeting on immigration policy last week. On Tuesday we were getting a “She said,” and right in front of a Senate Judiciary Committee that included the two senators who had vouched for the president’s vulgarity. “I did not hear that word used,” Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen told members of the committee under oath, while confirming that Trump had used “tough language.”

But Nielsen was not yet out of the woods, or the fjords. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D–Vermont) pressed her on Trump’s wish for more Norwegian immigrants, asking her to confirm that Norway was a predominantly white country. “I actually do not know that, sir,” the high-ranking official with blonde hair and a Scandinavian surname replied. “But I imagine that is the case.”

Occupying the office formerly held by chief strategist Steve Bannon, Nielsen worked tirelessly to instill discipline …

Whatever your politics, it’s painful to watch. Here is a longstanding public servant, an experienced lawyer and the woman in charge of efforts to protect the American homeland, put in a position where she must attempt to plead agnosticism about the ethnic composition of Norway. For some, Nielsen was the recipient of some over-the-top Senatorial mansplaining. For others, she was just the latest professional performing the moral ninjutsu required to serve a flawed president. For many Americans, however, this was their first introduction to Nielsen, just one month into her cabinet position, and it was not a pleasant one.

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Sen. Cory Booker, D–New Jersey, shakes hands with Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen before the start of the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.

Source Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/Getty

Things had started out much better for Nielsen. “It’s hard to imagine a more qualified candidate for this critical position,” the president said when he announced her nomination in October, praising her “sterling reputation.” Many leaders on both sides of the aisle, including the Senate, which confirmed her 62–37, agreed. A national security and cyber expert, the Georgetown and Virginia Law School grad was an alum of the George W. Bush administration, where she served on the White House Homeland Security Council before leaving to work as a private-sector consultant helping companies develop responses to cyberattacks.

One of the, shall we say, less than sterling entries on Nielsen’s résumé was her role in the Bush administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Nielsen’s name comes up frequently in the lengthy Katrina postmortems compiled by bipartisan committees in the House and Senate, which criticize her team’s failure both to recognize the severity of the threat to New Orleans and respond adequately to its consequences. “She started off with the Super Bowl,” Matthew Broderick (no, not that one), head of the Homeland Security Operations Center during Katrina, told The Washington Post last year. “Usually with these things you get a few games to work your way up.”

Nielsen, 45, earned a front-row seat to another potential disaster last August when she accompanied her boss at homeland security, Gen. John Kelly, to the White House to begin the thankless task of bringing order and stability to the then-swelling West Wing chaos. As deputy White House chief of staff, Nielsen was a gatekeeper for the gatekeeper, helping to filter the influx of information and people vying for the attention of the president. Occupying the office formerly held by chief strategist Steve Bannon, Nielsen worked tirelessly to instill discipline, eliminate distractions and even eject aides like Omarosa Manigault, the former Apprentice star, from meetings they did not belong in.

In her role as enforcer, there was little time for niceties. And many in the White House reportedly were taken aback by her brusque, no-nonsense approach to the job. But Nielsen retained the confidence and trust of Kelly, which she had earned after volunteering to be his “sherpa” during his confirmation as Trump’s first secretary of homeland security. That particular expedition required multiple late nights with the hard-working Nielsen coming down with such a bad cough that she cracked a rib. She wrapped a bandage around her torso and kept working, and Kelly was one of only two Trump cabinet secretaries sworn in on Inauguration Day.

Now as she takes over the reins of homeland security herself, Nielsen faces a much more daunting set of challenges. Atop an agency with a $40 billion discretionary budget and around 240,000 employees, she has a massive portfolio that includes everything from domestic counterterrorism to natural disaster response to immigration enforcement and border protection. So not only has Nielsen been thrown into the recent debate over deferred prosecution for immigrants brought to the U.S. as children and the border wall, but just a few days before her testimony in the Senate, she also had to handle the fallout from the false missile emergency warning issued in Hawaii.

Still, as her awkward Senate encounter made clear, the biggest disaster that Nielsen may have to handle on an ongoing basis is unquestionably man-made. We actually don’t know that for a fact. But we imagine that is the case.

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