Nielsen is a former Principal Deputy White House Chief of Staff to President Donald Trump, and was Chief of Staff to John F. Kelly during his term as Secretary of Homeland Security. She was confirmed on December 5, 2017 as the Secretary of Homeland Security. As Secretary of Homeland Security, Nielsen implemented a policy of separating parents and children who crossed over the U.S. Mexico border illegally.
|6th United States Secretary of Homeland Security|
Assumed office |
December 6, 2017
Claire Grady (acting)
|Preceded by||John F. Kelly|
|White House Principal Deputy Chief of Staff|
September 6, 2017 – December 6, 2017
|Chief of Staff||John F. Kelly|
|Preceded by||Katie Walsh|
|Succeeded by||James W. Carroll|
|Chief of Staff to the United States Secretary of Homeland Security|
January 20, 2017 – July 31, 2017
|Secretary||John F. Kelly|
|Preceded by||Paul Rosen|
|Succeeded by||Chad Wolf (acting)|
Kirstjen Michele Nielsen|
Colorado Springs, Colorado, U.S.
Georgetown University (BS)|
University of Virginia (JD)
Nielsen was born in Colorado Springs, Colorado, but grew up in Clearwater, Florida. Nielsen was the oldest of three children born to Phyllis Michele Nielsen and James McHenry Nielsen, two Army physicians. Her father is of Danish ancestry and her mother is of Italian descent. She has a sister, Ashley, and a brother, Fletcher, who is a musician. She graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree from the Georgetown School of Foreign Service and earned a Juris Doctor from the University of Virginia School of Law in 1999. She also studied Japanese Studies at Nanzan University, in Nagoya, Japan.
Nielsen served during the George W. Bush administration as Special Assistant to the President and as senior Director for Prevention, Preparedness and Response (PPR) at the White House Homeland Security Council. She also set up, and led as Assistant Administrator, the Transportation Security Administration's Office of Legislative Policy and Government Affairs. Before serving in the Trump administration, she was a senior member of the Resilience Task Force of the Center for Cyber & Homeland Security Committee at George Washington University and served on the Global Risks Report Advisory Board of the World Economic Forum.
After leaving the Bush administration in 2008, Nielsen became the founder and President of Sunesis Consulting. The firm's online profile listed her as its only employee, with the firm’s phone number being Nielsen’s personal cellphone. In September 2013 the company won a federal contract, with an initial award of about $450,000, to "provide policy and legislation, technical writing, and organizational development" to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Nielsen served as John F. Kelly's Chief of Staff at the United States Department of Homeland Security (DHS) after he assumed that position in January 2017. In early September 2017, just over a month after Kelly became White House Chief of Staff on July 31, 2017, Nielsen moved to the White House, becoming the principal Deputy Chief of Staff under Kelly.
On October 11, 2017, President Donald Trump nominated Nielsen to be the new United States Secretary of Homeland Security, replacing Acting Secretary Elaine Duke. On December 5, 2017, the Senate confirmed her nomination, by a 62–37 vote. On December 6, 2017, she was sworn in as Secretary of Homeland Security.
On January 16, 2018, Nielsen testified before the United States Senate in favor of merit, rather than family, based immigration. She was questioned about an earlier meeting at the White House in which press reports and Senator Dick Durbin related that the President had used the word shithole to describe African countries, as well as disparaging remarks about Haiti. Nielsen said "I did not hear that word used, no sir" although she said she heard "tough language" which was impassioned. During the same hearing, Senator Patrick Leahy asked Secretary Nielsen whether Norway was a predominantly white country. Kirstjen Nielsen appeared to hesitate before answering, "I actually do not know that, sir." She added, "But I imagine that is the case." Nielsen was criticized by New Jersey Senator Cory Booker for not recalling or speaking out against Trump's disparaging remarks which Booker characterized as bigoted. Following the hearing, Nielsen expressed her disappointment in the amount of attention being paid to the White House meeting.
On March 23, 2018, it was reported that Nilsen agreed with the enactment of the Presidential Memorandum for the Secretary of Defense and the Secretary of Homeland Security Regarding Military Service by Transgender Individuals.
The New York Times reported in May 2018 that Nielsen considered resigning after President Trump berated her in front of the Cabinet for the purported failure to secure U.S. borders. The Times reported that there was tension between Nielsen and Trump after she and other DHS officials resisted Trump's call to separate undocumented immigrant parents from their children while in custody. The Times' reporting was confirmed to Politico and Reuters by a source at the DHS. Nielsen denied that she threatened to resign.
At a May 2018 congressional hearing, Nielsen said that she was unaware of the intelligence community's conclusion that Russia sought to interfere in the 2016 presidential election to help candidate Trump get elected. An assessment by the FBI, CIA and NSA in January 2017 was that the Russian preference was clearly to help Trump win; this assessment was mirrored in a bipartisan report by the Senate Intelligence Committee released days prior to Nielsen's testimony. Nielsen said that she had not seen the intelligence community briefing that Russia had tried to interfere in the 2016 election. Nielsen later, in May 2018 backtracked, saying that she agreed with the intelligence community's assessment.
At the Aspen Security Forum, Aspen, Colorado, during an interview by Peter Alexander of NBC on July 19, 2018, Nielsen stated that Russians had absolutely interfered in the United States Presidential Election in 2016. When Alexander asked if Russians had interfered in favor of Donald Trump, Nielsen responded, “I haven’t seen any evidence that the attempts to interfere in our election infrastructure was to favor a particular political party. I think what we’ve seen on the foreign influence side is they were attempting to intervene and cause chaos on both sides.” Prior to this on July 16, 2018 at the joint press conference in Helsinki after 2018 Russia-United States Summit, Jeff Mason from Reuters asked President Putin, "Did you want President Trump to win the election and did you direct any of your officials to help him do that?" Putin's blunt response was: "Yes, I wanted him to win. Because he talked about bringing the U.S. Russia relationship back to normal."
During the same interview at the Aspen Security Forum when Alexander further asked whether the president has made countering white supremacy a priority, Nielsen replied that he wanted DHS to prevent “any form of violence” threatening Americans. Referring to President Trump's response to clashes between the white supremacists and counter-protesters at Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, Virginia on August 12, 2017, Alexander asked, "But in the comments that are obviously highly publicized when he [President Trump] placed blame in his words on both side, does that make your job harder when President says things that at least in those communities are viewed as he has got our [white supremacists'] back?" In her response Nielsen did not unequivocally denounce white supremacists. She said, "I think what’s interesting about that is we saw, and I think we continue to learn— maybe there was different, whether it was foreign influence or different purposeful attempts to get both sides, if you will, aggressively pitted against each other." She later added that “it’s not that one side is right, one side is wrong. Anybody that is advocating violence, we need to work to mitigate.”
At a congressional hearing on May 15, 2018, Nielson testified that she would enforce the-then newly enacted Trump administration policy of separating parents and children who crossed over the U.S.–Mexico border, noting that similar separations happened in criminal courts "every day."
In June 2018, Nielsen stated that the Trump administration did not maintain a policy of separating migrant families at the Southern border; The Washington Post fact-checker described Nielsen's claim as "Orwellian." At that point, the Trump administration had in six weeks separated approximately 2,000 migrant children from their parents. Contrary to Nielsen's claims, the DHS website showed that a policy of family separation was in place.
On June 18, 2018, Nielsen defended the policy at a sheriffs' conference but said the administration had asked Congress "to allow us to keep families together while they are detained" as an alternative. "We cannot detain children with their parents so we must either release both the parents and the children — this is the historic 'get out of jail free' practice of the previous administration — or the adult and the minor will be separated as the result of prosecuting the adult. Those are the only two options. Surely it is the beginning of the unraveling of democracy when the body who makes the laws, rather than changing them, asks the body who enforces the laws not to enforce the laws. That cannot be the answer." Three days earlier, the DHS said that it had separated 1,995 immigrant children from 1,940 adults, which it described as "alleged adult parents," at the border between mid-April and the end of May. Because the law forbids children from being kept in criminal detention facilities, they are separated from their parents.
Nielsen held a press briefing with White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders in June 2018 amid growing public outcry about the family separation policy. Nielsen accused the media and member of Congress of mischaracterizing the administration's policy. She dismissed the suggestion that the administration was using family separations as political leverage to force Congress to support Trump's broader immigration agenda or to deter migrants from coming to the United States. In doing so, she contradicted comments made earlier by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Chief of Staff John Kelly and senior adviser Stephen Miller.
On June 20, 2018 after repeatedly arguing that the administration could not sign an Executive Order to end family separations, she was present at Trump's signing of an Executive Order ending his "zero-tolerance" policy of separating of children from families. Sources told Politico that Nielsen had privately pushed for this executive order behind the scenes while at the same time saying publicly that the executive order could not be created.
Kirstjen Nielsen is an expert in homeland and national security policy, strategy, and assessment, with a focus in the areas of critical infrastructure protection, including cyber security, preparedness, response and incident management, information sharing, risk assessment, trend analysis and risk management, organizational development, stakeholder requirement analysis, outreach and communication, and training and exercise programs.
Kirstjen M. Nielsen of Florida will serve as Assistant to the President and Principal Deputy Chief of Staff. Ms. Nielsen formerly served as Chief of Staff of the Department of Homeland Security.
Kirstjen Nielsen, who has served as chief of staff under Kelly at DHS, will follow her boss to the White House, a Trump administration official told Fox News.
The remarks also dominated Nielsen's appearance […] One Democrat after another pressed Nielsen on Trump's reported comments, and she repeatedly dodged, saying she didn't recall if "shithole" specifically — or other variations, such as "shithouse" — was used.
Under intense questioning from both Republicans and Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen confirmed that the president had used "tough language" in the meeting Thursday.
John F. Kelly
| United States Secretary of Homeland Security
|Current U.S. order of precedence (ceremonial)|
as Secretary of Veterans Affairs
| Order of Precedence of the United States
as Secretary of Homeland Security
John F. Kelly
as White House Chief of Staff
|Current U.S. presidential line of succession|
as Secretary of Veterans Affairs
| 17th in line
as Secretary of Homeland Security