Kirstjen Nielsen departure won't change "overwhelmed" border situation, former Bush aide says

Nielsen resignation impact on immigration
Nielsen resignation impact on immigration 02:50

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen abruptly resigned Sunday, following a rocky tenure during which she became the public face of the Trump Administration's border security policies. Those measures included the separation of families and the crisis facing tens of thousands of children who have been taken from relatives.

CBS News first reported Nielsen's impending departure, which President Trump confirmed in a tweet after meeting with Nielsen at the White House late Sunday afternoon. 

In a tweet, Mr. Trump announced that he would appoint Kevin McAleenan, the current U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner, to be acting secretary. Nielsen's departure means that three agencies – Homeland Security, Interior and the Defense Department – are being led by acting heads who have not been confirmed by the Senate.

Nielsen's departure came just two days after Mr. Trump announced he wants to go in a "tougher" direction on the issue of immigration.

On "CBS This Morning" Monday, co-host Norah O'Donnell asked CBS News senior national security analyst Fran Townsend (who worked with Nielsen in the administration of President George W. Bush), "The president called Nielsen on Sunday morning and said essentially, 'Shut down the border, shut it down to all migrants, shut it down to people seeking asylum.' The secretary apparently has repeatedly told the president, 'Sir, some of that stuff is illegal, I just can't do that.' What is going to change in terms of immigration? Will anything change with this firing?"

"Certainly we won't expect McAleenan or any secretary to be breaking the law, and if the president doesn't like the law, the administration is going to have to work with Congress to change some of it," Townsend replied. "But, look, there has been a surge. I was down at the border not ten days ago and the system is overwhelmed, and so something's got to give. The president is understandably frustrated with the increasing numbers, but firing Nielsen isn't going to change that. They were prosecuting every person who illegally crossed the border, then the system got overwhelmed which is why they pulled back from that. But there's no solution to this. Once they pulled back from prosecutions, the message to illegal migrants is, 'Come on in because you're now not going to get prosecuted until the law changes.'"

Co-host John Dickerson asked, "How much of this was Nielsen's issue, and how much of it is the president is in a system of separated powers where Congress has to do the work that he wants done?"

"I think she was doing what she thought was the limit of what she can do," Townsend said. "She's repeatedly said, and it's true, Congress does need to act. If they don't like the policy of the administration, some of this can be blunted if they simply update the law, allowing children to be returned to their country of origin (just like we do with Mexico and Canada, for example), and sort of not have the problem of family separations."

Co-host Gayle King asked, "Do you feel she got a fair shake?"

"I think she's done her level best," replied Townsend. "I think she's worked tirelessly to implement the president's agenda, but it's been a tough road. She's had a difficult 16 months. She's defended policies she at times, I think, was questioning. And so, she served well. I think it's a relief for her to be able to get out and move on." 

  • David Morgan

    David Morgan is a senior editor at and