President Donald Trump offered up rare praise for Kirstjen Nielsen during a closed-door meeting with House Republicans Tuesday night, a source in the room told CNN, a notable vote of confidence for the previously embattled homeland security secretary.
He then lauded her publicly in a tweet, an honor in his book, remarking that she “did a fabulous job yesterday at the press conference explaining security at the border and for our country, while at the same time recommending changes to obsolete & nasty laws, which force family separation. We want ‘heart’ and security in America!”
Nielsen was pushed in front of cameras abruptly Monday to defend the practice of separating parents from children at the border after images of children being kept in chain-link cages dominated cable news coverage and prompted widespread outrage from Democrats and Republicans. Critics said she did little to answer their questions about the zero-tolerance policy as she, at times, contradicted what other administration officials have said regarding whether it was aimed at deterring other immigrants from crossing the border illegally.
“This administration did not create a policy of separating families at the border,” Nielsen said during the briefing, later bristling when asked if the policy was intended to stir up outrage.
“I find that offensive,” Nielsen said. “Why would I ever create a policy that purposely does that?”
The unenviable task seems to have paid off for Nielsen internally. The President’s praise was echoed throughout the halls of the West Wing this week when multiple officials lauded Nielsen for a job well done after she sparred with reporters during the particularly tense White House briefing Monday, two people familiar with the reaction told CNN.
The approval from a critical President and colleagues she failed to develop relationships with could mean Nielsen is finding herself on firmer ground in the West Wing at a time when she has become the face of one of the administration’s most controversial policies.
That’s despite the fact that Trump berated Nielsen during a heated Cabinet meeting on immigration last month, lashing out in front of other officials and telling her he didn’t think she was doing enough to secure the border. At the time, Nielsen stood her ground, sources told CNN, citing the law in certain instances.
The New York Times reported that Nielsen drafted a resignation letter at the time but never submitted it. The White House never denied the confrontation between Trump and Nielsen, and tensions between the two continued to worsen in recent weeks.
The President had been skeptical of Nielsen long before the blowup. She first entered the West Wing as chief of staff John Kelly’s deputy late last summer after the two became close allies when she served as his chief of staff at the Department of Homeland Security.
But Nielsen quickly made enemies in the West Wing because she was seen as the stringent Kelly’s watchdog, looking out for him more than she was the President. Trump repeatedly told others he was dubious about Nielsen’s loyalties because she served on the White House Homeland Security Council under President George W. Bush, at times referring to her as “a Bush person.”
It was Kelly who later convinced him to nominate her to be the next homeland security secretary.