If ever the sardonic term "cry me a river" was appropriate, it would fit this week's story about Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen. As widely reported, Nielsen was berated by President Donald Trump during a cabinet meeting over his perception that she was not doing enough to secure the border.
Nielsen defended the agency's actions but was so affected by the public dressing down that she reportedly told two people, according to the New York Times, that she drafted a resignation letter, but has not sent it. Described by one source as "miserable in her job," Nielsen could well be the next cabinet official to vacate the administration. (A DHS spokesman flatly denied that Nielsen had threatened to resign.)
What are we supposed to make of this newest pseudo drama?
Nielsen came into the job knowing the kind of leader Trump is -- not loyal, prone to rants and public humiliations, not focused on the details, and keen on satisfying campaign promises regardless of the law, budget or practicality. She also came into the job, immediately after her mentor John Kelly became White House chief of staff, knowing Trump's views on immigration.
She was, of course, a surprise pick, never having run a major institution, but was quickly confirmed because of (at least then) the strength of Kelly's power and influence.
Regardless of Trump's ranting at the cabinet meeting Wednesday night, she has seemed downright eager to effectuate much more aggressive immigration enforcement tactics. DHS has taken the lead on the wall, deporting unlawful immigrants who have family here, ending the Dreamer program, as well as Temporary Protective Services protections for groups of immigrants that have been in the nation for decades.
The stories of ICE agents taking away fathers, who had committed no serious crimes outside immigration violations, in front of their kids tell of a harsh new reality that bears little relation to the nation we once knew. Nielsen hasn't been a reluctant warrior in these efforts; she has been the willing general.
It's just hard to muster much sympathy for her at this stage. She knew what she was getting into.
At the same time, other aspects of our homeland security have withered. Puerto Rico recovery? Cyber protections? Pandemic preparedness? Almost none of it matters -- not because Nielsen or the department don't have the legal obligation to address America's vulnerabilities, but because the President only views security through the lens of immigration.
The President still wants the wall, despite Mexico not paying and despite Republicans on the hill not giving him the money for it. His priority is even harsher enforcement efforts, even separating parents from children as a deterrent to unlawful border crossings, as Kelly explained to NPR Friday. None of this is new.
Maybe, just maybe, Nielsen came into the job trying to temper some of Trump's efforts. If that is true, she has indeed failed miserably. That she now potentially wants to quit because she got yelled at and undermined has nothing to do with her commitment to a just or more humane society, and everything to do with her emotions.
Maybe this is a story line she wants out in the public space now, to gather some empathy for her eventual exit from the Trump cabinet. All we know now is that people close to Nielsen say she "almost" quit. Makes you feel sorry for her. Almost.