WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump has warmed to his Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen in recent weeks, sources tell CNN, at least temporarily easing the tension in an explosive relationship that was once seen as untenable.
Though she was recently on the brink of being fired, Nielsen has managed to build a rapport with the mercurial president over a caravan of Central American migrants, which Trump focused heavily on during the run-up to the midterm elections.
Nielsen staunchly defended the President’s claims on the caravan, including the charge there was evidence that criminals were traveling in the caravan. Trump has not told aides he wants to keep Nielsen around longer, but he has praised her repeatedly behind closed doors, which has surprised officials who are used to hearing his frequent criticism of her.
“No one has been working harder to implement the President’s security-focused agenda than Secretary Nielsen. She is fully focused on supporting the men and women of DHS, the mission at hand, and solving the crisis at the border,” said Department of Homeland Security press secretary Tyler Houlton.
While Trump was in Argentina for the G20 summit, Nielsen traveled to Mexico for it’s new president’s inauguration.
Officials on the trip said she was in a buoyant mood and remarked afterward that she seemed more confident in her job security, though it is still seen as temporary and Nielsen is not expected to stay on in her role permanently.
Nielsen is slated to travel to Egypt and Jordan this month for various security forums, according to two sources, suggesting she expects to remain on the job in the immediate future.
Two West Wing officials said that while the recent change in her relationship with the President could allow for a graceful exit — which once seemed out of the question — she will now likely only remain on until a replacement is picked. An official said while several names have been suggested for the job, a shortlist isn’t in place and potential candidates haven’t been formally vetted.
No one within the department has emerged as obvious choice for an interim replacement. The department’s No. 2 position has been filled in an acting capacity by Claire Grady under Nielsen’s leadership. There are also a number of other leadership positions in the department being filled by officials in an acting role.
Nielsen has privately said she wanted to stay on in the post for at least a year. Wednesday marks one year since she was confirmed by the Senate in a 62-37 vote. At moments, she has told people she was unhappy in the post, including when Trump berated her during a Cabinet meeting over immigration.
Nielsen has been surveying some friends about how she can best exit the administration — at whatever point that may be — with her reputation intact. She also has talked aloud about exploring positions in the private sector focusing on cybersecurity, one friend said, which was one of her areas of expertise before joining the Trump administration.
Nielsen followed John Kelly into the West Wing when he replaced Reince Priebus as chief of staff, and he is the one who convinced Trump to name her as his replacement at the Department of Homeland Security.
One source close to the President said that when Kelly leaves the West Wing, Nielsen is expected to follow. It is, however, an open question whether Nielsen will stay as long as Kelly.