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President Trump began berating Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen in the Oval Office earlier this spring, according to administration officials, griping about her performance and blaming her for a surge in illegal border crossings.
Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, who installed her in the job, jumped in to defend her.
The two men then sparred over Nielsen as she silently watched. At one point, Trump noted the border numbers were lower under Kelly and wondered aloud why Nielsen could not perform as well, according to these officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the private meeting.
As illegal crossings are once more on the rise and Trump hears a cascade of criticism from conservative allies, Nielsen finds herself on the receiving end of the president’s visceral anger about immigration, seeing the issue as the reason he won in 2016 and a key to his politicking ahead of the midterm elections.
The president has chastised her on several occasions this spring, including a much publicized meeting earlier this month when he attacked her in front of the entire Cabinet. He has grown furious because his administration has made little progress building the border wall, and his most ardent supporters have blamed Nielsen for not doing more to halt the caravan of Central American migrants whose advance Trump saw as a personal challenge.
He has also seen her as a proxy for Kelly, whose relationship with the president has frayed in recent months. Trump has decided, according to several aides, that Nielsen is a George W. Bush kind of Republican, the worst in his view.
Nielsen has complained that it is almost an impossible task working for Trump, according to administration officials and others familiar with her thinking, and that he doesn’t understand the nuances of immigration law.
It remains unclear, according to several people familiar with the situation, how much longer the relationship can last, but the strains illustrate the difficulty faced by Trump subordinates who are tasked with delivering policy solutions to match his most soaring promises.
“The president has a very rudimentary understanding of what the border is all about and how you secure it,” said a former DHS staffer who worked closely with Nielsen. “And she’s also not one of the border fire-eaters that have his ear right now. She’s in an impossible, no-win situation.”
Tensions between the two could soon flare again — the Border Patrol’s May arrest numbers are due to be released early next month, and immigration hawks, including the president, now treat them as a kind of barometer for Nielsen’s performance.
“Secretary Nielsen is vigorously advancing the president’s agenda to secure this nation’s borders against uncontrolled migration, drugs, gangs, terrorism, crime and the theft of taxpayer dollars and American jobs,” White House senior policy adviser Stephen Miller said in a statement. “She knows the threat, understands the threat, and is undertaking bold action to confront it head-on.”
Tyler Houlton, a DHS spokesman, said the two are “on the same page,” adding “any accusations to the contrary are simply false.”
‘He wants to do Shock and Awe’