It’s been just a week since Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen was forced to resign from her post. While her departure was long overdue, it is also a sobering reminder of two critical facts in the age of Trump.
Former Secretary Nielsen approved the policy that led to the aggressive separation of children and parents on the southern border of the U.S. She did so in the hopes, shared with then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, that this inhumane punishment would deter legal migration. And when questioned about the chaotic effects of her decision, she lied about it.
So on the one hand, Nielsen’s resignation is good: The policy that she authorized, implemented, and provided cover for created a logistical nightmare and incredible pain for innocent people. At least two children and one parent died in the course of detention. The American Academy of Pediatrics said that trauma from such a separation, even without reported instances of physical and sexual abuse, can stay with children for a lifetime. DHS took no steps to record which children were being separated from which parents, and the administration itself acknowledges that it may take two years years to sort out the mess. And governments around the world denounced the United States, President Reagan’s “shining city on a hill,” for our morally abhorrent actions.
The severity of what Nielsen oversaw is a critical reminder that Trump Administration ‘formers’ must not be allowed to exit public life through the typical Washington revolving door that places them in cushy corporate, academic, or lobbying gigs. From Sean Spicer’s book tour to Scott Pruitt’s energy consulting business to Corey Lewandowski’s Harvard fellowship, the post-Trump landings to date have been far too forgiving. It is incumbent on the media, academia, and industry to stop rewarding these people for their moral failings.
It will also be the task of the next Democratic administration to hold those who executed on President Trump’s policies accountable. The Obama administration’s failure to prosecute or even publicly name and shame the Bush administration leaders who embraced torture (against both American values and operational effectiveness) was a failure that we cannot bear to repeat again. If children were orphaned, abused, and traumatized by the U.S. government — and they were — people in leadership positions must be made to answer for the policies that caused it.
But these are long term problems. As we look to the immediate future, there is the second issue with Nielsen’s departure: that whoever follows her may well be worse. Nielsen reportedly left the administration, after all, in the midst of a fight with the president about restarting the family separation policy. And since her recent departure, similar exits at DHS (among them Acting Deputy Secretary Claire Grady and Secret Service Director Randolph “Tex” Alles) have followed.
In fact, the speculation in Washington is that White House advisor Stephen Miller has targeted even more DHS appointees for removal in the service of a more extreme immigration policy. Whether or not that is true remains to be seen; the rate of turnover at the Trump Administration is so high that ascribing rhyme or reason to it is a risky business. Regardless of who is pulling the levers of power, though, the change-up at DHS is a stark reminder that the cruelty and corruption that has so characterized this administration flows from the top down, meaning that each new appointee could well be worse than the last.
So ultimately, while Nielsen’s removal from DHS is ultimately a step forward for the nation, what comes next both in the long and short term matters just as much. It will be incumbent upon all of us to ensure that she and others are held accountable for the administration’s policies — and that they are the last ones making such harmful decisions in the first place.