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Behind The Departure Of Homeland Security Secretary Nielsen


We're going to continue the conversation with NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Mara, Thanks so much for joining us.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Happy to be here.

MARTIN: What does this mean?

LIASSON: I think it means that the president, who had been frustrated with Secretary Nielsen and is frustrated with the surge of asylum-seekers at the border, just decided to make a change. And he did this the other day, where he took down his nominee for ICE, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said we're going in a tougher direction. And he had, we know, complained in the past that Nielsen hadn't been tough enough. And maybe he has something in mind where he will have a, quote, "tougher"-looking policy towards the border with tougher-looking people.

MARTIN: As - sort of following this story in real time, and you can see the anonymous sources offering different messages to different networks, as they are want to do, some suggesting that she resigned because she was frustrated, others suggesting that she was fired because the president was frustrated. Do you have any insight about which of those versions is true?

LIASSON: I think she was frustrated, and I think she was asked to resign. I think that she was widely kind of on thin ice for so long. I think that the story really is that how long she lasted, not so much that he decided to fire her. Many people expected her to be removed from the Cabinet right after the midterm elections. That didn't happen. It seemed that she was on firmer ground with the president. She made many trips to the border. She certainly delivered his message about the border. But he's unhappy.

He's unhappy not just with the fact that there's been a surge of migrant families at the border, but also all of the things that he's tried to do haven't worked out. Remember, just this week, he said he was going to close the border. Then he backed down from that. He's talked about putting tariffs on Mexico if they don't stop immigration and drugs, but he can't do that because of the new USMCA, the new renegotiated NAFTA agreement that he signed. So the president's frustrated about the border, and he wants new people.

MARTIN: So the president said on Twitter that the new person will be the current - at least the acting person will be the current Customs and Border Protection commissioner, Kevin McAleenan. What do we know about him? And do we expect that he might have a better relationship with President Trump than Kirstjen Nielsen seemed to have, since, as you pointed out, she seemed to struggle mightily and certainly in her utterances absolutely reaffirmed his policy and projected his point of view on these issues.

LIASSON: Well, my - I don't think that Kevin McAleenan is going to be the permanent Homeland Security secretary. There are other names that we've heard, including Rick Perry, who's currently the energy secretary. But the president has a very large number of acting secretaries right now. He's actually said he likes having people who are acting. It gives him more flexibility. And especially on the border, where he feels so strongly.

This is such a top issue for him - immigration, stopping immigration, the kind of fear of immigrants coming over the border to do harm to Americans, which is a constant theme of his, is something that will be a centerpiece of his re-election campaign. And I think that, more than anything else, you'll see him driving policy on the border, not necessarily whoever takes over from Kirstjen Nielsen.

MARTIN: Mara, we only have a couple of seconds left, but you've also pointed out that many of the - the president has been frustrated, in part, by the law. Is there any strategy that he's employing to try to address the fact that legal issues have kept him from implementing the policies that he prefers?

LIASSON: Well, he's tried several things, and they haven't worked out. He talked about closing the border. He's talked about, you know, superseding the USMCA with tariffs - a punishment, in other words, on Mexico. But the one thing that he has succeeded in doing is making the border, and what he calls the crisis at the border, front and center in the media narrative. And that is the way that he succeeded. He thinks this is a very important issue for him and his base in the next election.

MARTIN: That is NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Mara, thank you so much.

LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.
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