Wednesday 19 December 2018

Frustrated Trump mulls over clear-out of his cabinet

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen. Photo: Leah Millis
Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen. Photo: Leah Millis

Coleen Long

US President Donald Trump is mulling over a clear-out of his administration as he looks to prepare his White House for divided government.

It is still unclear exactly who will face the axe, but speculation centres on the possibility that he is considering removing White House Chief of Staff John Kelly or Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen.

It was thought Ms Nielsen could be out as soon as this week, according to two people with knowledge of the issue, but she is now likely to remain in the post for a longer period because there is no obvious successor in place.

Ms Nielsen is thought to be out of favour with Mr Trump, as is Mr Kelly, in part over frustration that his administration is not doing more to address what he has called a crisis at the US-Mexico border.

But the sweep of the changes could be much wider, as Mr Trump gears up for a wave of Democratic oversight requests and to devote more effort to his own re-election campaign.

According to people familiar with the situation, Mr Trump is also discussing replacing Mr Kelly with Vice President Mike Pence's chief of staff Nick Ayers. Mr Kelly, a retired Marine general, has been credited with bringing order and process to a chaotic West Wing, but he has fallen out of favour with the president, as well as his daughter Ivanka Trump and son-in-law Jared Kushner.

Mr Ayers, a seasoned campaign operative, would restore a political mindset to the role, but he faces stiff opposition from some corners of the West Wing, with some aides lobbying Mr Trump directly against the move.

Other changes are afoot, as Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke are being discussed for replacement.

White House Chief of Staff John Kelly. Photo: Reuters
White House Chief of Staff John Kelly. Photo: Reuters

In an extraordinary move on Tuesday, first lady Melania Trump's office called publicly for the firing of Mr Trump's deputy national security adviser, Mira Ricardel.

For all of the talk of churn, Mr Trump often expresses frustration with aides and then does not take action. Talk of Mr Kelly's exit has percolated for months and he remains in place.

Ms Nielsen had hoped to complete one year in the job and leave in December, but it appeared unlikely she would last that long, said two sources.

Curbing illegal immigration is Mr Trump's signature issue - and one he returns to as a way to rally his most loyal supporters.

But anyone who takes over at Homeland Security is likely to run up against the same problems that Ms Nielsen faced. The administration has already tried to clamp down at the border but those efforts have been largely thwarted or watered down due to legal challenges.

Mr Trump also told allies that he never fully trusted Ms Nielsen, whom he associated with President George W Bush, a longtime foe. And he told those close to him that he felt, at times, that her loyalty was more toward her longtime mentor - Mr Kelly - than to the president.

Mr Zinke, who faces several ethics investigations, said in an interview on Monday that he has spoken in recent days with Mr Trump, Mr Pence and Mr Kelly about probes into his leadership and they remain supportive. He denied any wrongdoing.

Re-elected

Mr Ross addressed turnover rumours at a Yahoo! Finance summit on Tuesday, saying he was in the post to give back to the country and support Mr Trump.

"I worked very hard to get President Trump elected," he said. "Now I'd like to work equally hard to have him succeed and be re-elected."

Questions about Ms Nielsen's job security are not new. Earlier this year, she pushed back on a 'New York Times' report that she drafted a resignation letter but did not submit it, after Mr Trump scolded her at a cabinet meeting.

Ms Nielsen has led the sprawling post-9/11 federal agency since December.

She had been chief of staff to Mr Kelly when he was Mr Trump's first Homeland Security secretary. A DHS spokesman would not comment on whether she was leaving.

"The secretary is honoured to lead the men and women of DHS and is committed to implementing the president's security-focused agenda to protect Americans from all threats and will continue to do so," spokesman Tyler Houlton said.

Ms Nielsen advocated for strong cybersecurity defence, and often said she believed the next major terror attack would occur online - not by planes or bombs. She was tasked with helping states secure elections following interference by Russians during the 2016 election.

Irish Independent

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