“[T]he inflow of drugs,” the Homeland Security secretary wrote in her resignation letter. On Twitter, that was the first phrase of it all, because Kirstjen Nielsen or whoever posted it for her had put the image of Page Two before the image of Page One: the inflow of drugs, and uphold our laws and values.
None of it made sense even when the pages were in the right order. Nielsen and President Donald Trump had disagreed irreconcilably about something, but it’s not because she stood for anything righteous or good against the president’s malice. This didn’t stop Bill Kristol, the still-unbending general of the dwindling Never Trump right, from trying to use the letter as textual evidence to read her into the Resistance:
Two words you won’t find in Kirstjen Nielsen’s resignation letter: Donald Trump. Nielsen writes, “It has been my great honor to lead the men and women of the Department as its sixth Secretary.” She does not say it was an honor to have served President Trump.
But if the letter was a rebuke to Trump, it was the narrowest possible rebuke. Nielsen led the men and women of her department in doing what the president wanted done, and what the president wanted done was nativist panic-mongering, in the service of ethnic cleansing. This is the work she was proud of:
We have taken unprecedented action to protect Americans. We have implemented historic efforts to defend our borders, combat illegal immigration, obstruct the inflow of drugs, and uphold our laws and values.
Under her oversight, the department kidnapped and drugged children, harassed people on the interior to demand their papers, and militarized the border.
It wasn’t really true that detention camps on United States soil are “unprecedented,” but the spirit was right. Nielsen’s job was to lower the standards and raise the aggression with which the United States meets incoming people, and that was the job she did. Under her oversight, the department kidnapped and drugged children, harassed people on the interior to demand their papers, and militarized the border.
This was not the voice of a principled civil servant setting limits; it was the tone of a cop complaining that the cops aren’t allowed to bust heads like they want to.
Her letter complained about the lack of “support of Congress and the courts in fixing the laws which have impeded our ability to fully secure America’s borders and which have contributed to discord in our nation’s discourse” and argued that its staffers “deserve to have all the tools and resources they need to execute the mission entrusted to them.” This was not the voice of a principled civil servant setting limits; it was the tone of a cop complaining that the cops aren’t allowed to bust heads like they want to.
Nowhere in the letter was there the same sort of criticism of Donald Trump. The deployment of military and Homeland Security forces to the border in a false emergency, as a campaign stunt? “We have prevented the disruption of U.S. elections,” Nielsen wrote. Thousands of deaths caused by neglect toward Puerto Rico? “We have responded decisively to record-breaking natural disasters and helped Americans rebuild.”
Nielsen was a brute, with brutish goals and brutish principles.
Like her mentor and predecessor at Homeland Security, John Kelly, Nielsen was a brute, with brutish goals and brutish principles. She would have been irredeemable if she’d quit a year ago. If Trump replaces her with someone worse, he’ll just be carrying on her own commitment to making the country worse than it was when she started. To believe that she has somehow done the right thing by trying to get out now is to believe that the president’s only real fault is his volatility and unreasonableness, not his cruelty and contempt. It is to suggest, as a hope or a goal, that Trumpism can be carried on after Trump.