Outgoing Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen introduced the new department headquarters Wednesday under the shadow of a former psychiatric hospital, in a speech that was better suited for a farewell than a ribbon-cutting ceremony.
On her last day as head of the Department of Homeland Security, Nielsen welcomed staff to St. Elizabeths in southeast Washington – a campus that previously served as a “Government-run hospital for the insane” – capping a tumultuous tenure.
“This move has been a very long time in the making. We are six secretaries in. We’re finally moving in,” she said. “It was taking so long, in fact, I honestly didn’t know if I was still going to be secretary when we got here, but I just made it,” she added to laughter from the audience.
Nielsen’s forced resignation Sunday evening had sent shock waves through one of the largest federal departments, prompting speculation about who would be next.
Three days later, more than 100 agency personnel gathered on a breezy spring afternoon. Shortly before the ceremony, agency heads, some of whom are rumored to be ousted soon, mingled with one another. In ordinary times, the interactions would’ve passed as collegial. But on Wednesday, they carried additional weight.
Kevin McAleenan, who is taking over DHS in an acting capacity, walked over to Lee Francis Cissna, the director of US Citizenship and Immigration Services, who’s thought to be next on the chopping block, and patted him on the back. McAleenan was also seen talking to outgoing Secret Service Director Randolph “Tex” Alles, whose removal had caught Secret Service officials by surprise.
Under Secretary for Intelligence and Analysis David Glawe was also in attendance, as was Ron Vitiello, the acting chief of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, whose nomination to become that agency’s director was abruptly withdrawn by the White House last week. Vitiello sent an email to employees prior to the ceremony notifying them that Friday will be his last day as acting director.
Any underlying tension was veiled by the applause Nielsen received upon arrival and during her remarks. Claire Grady, the acting deputy of Homeland Security, whose resignation was announced Tuesday evening, introduced the outgoing secretary, listing a slew of Nielsen’s accomplishments.
“It’s really a historic day, a long time coming. We finally have a headquarters the department deserves. I have been a strong advocate for years. I am proud to have actually moved into the building,” said Grady.
Nielsen kicked off her speech reminiscing about her time at the department. “As some of you know, I started at DHS before there was a DHS. I started at TSA, the agency that was created by Congress after the tragic events of September 11 to protect commercial aviation security,” she said, before proceeding to more recent events, including the uptick of apprehensions at the US border.
“Although it’s been a challenging year for the department, as we are in the midst of a historic humanitarian and security crisis at our southern border,” Nielsen said. “We have responded, in my opinion, with unparalleled efforts to secure our nation’s borders, stop illegal immigration, staunch the flow of illicit drugs, stop individuals from breaking our nation’s laws.”
The administration announced Tuesday that monthly apprehensions at the US-Mexico border are the highest they’ve been since 2007.
The influx of migrants has infuriated President Donald Trump. In recent weeks, the President empowered White House senior adviser Stephen Miller to lead the administration’s border policies “and he’s executing his plan” with what amounts to a wholesale decapitation of the department’s leadership, an official has told CNN. Miller played a key role in Nielsen’s ouster.
Nielsen expressed confidence in McAleenan, who most recently served as the commissioner of Customs and Border Protection. “He’ll do very well for the department,” she said.
Headquarters employees will be moving into the new facility throughout April. What their leadership structure will look like throughout that transition remains in question.