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Homeland Security Secretary Nielsen leaving Trump administration amid surge of migrants

Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen attends a meeting with President Donald Trump in January 2019. Jabin Botsford / Washington Post

WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump announced Sunday, April 7, that Kirstjen Nielsen has resigned as secretary of homeland security, marking the exit of a second top immigration official in a matter of days as the White House continues to grapple with an influx of migrants on the southern border.

Replacing her on an acting basis will be Kevin McAleenan, who currently serves as the commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, Trump said Sunday. The announcement on Twitter came shortly after Trump and Nielsen met at the White House, according to two senior administration officials.

"Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen will be leaving her position, and I would like to thank her for her service," Trump tweeted Sunday evening. "I am pleased to announce that Kevin McAleenan, the current U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner, will become Acting Secretary for @DHSgov. I have confidence that Kevin will do a great job!"

The meeting between Trump and Nielsen was not disclosed on the president's public schedule, and it came three days after the White House abruptly yanked the nomination of Ronald Vitiello, who had been picked as Trump's director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The president later signaled that he wants the nation to go "in a tougher direction" on immigration.

In her resignation letter to Trump, Nielsen said it was the "right time for me to step aside," despite what she described as "progress in reforming homeland security for a new age."

"I hope that the next Secretary will have the support of Congress and the courts in fixing the laws which have impeded our ability to fully secure America's borders and which have contributed to discord in our nation's discourse," Nielsen wrote in the two-page letter. "Our country - and the men and women of DHS - deserve to have all the tools and resources they need to execute the mission entrusted to them."

Two senior administration officials said that Nielsen had no intention of quitting when she went to the meeting Sunday with the president and that she was forced to step down. The announcement of her departure came shortly after the meeting.

Trump told aides last fall that he wanted to fire Nielsen, and he grew increasingly agitated as a large caravan of Central American migrants reached the U.S.-Mexico border in California. She appeared to recover her footing after U.S. Border Patrol agents used tear gas to repel a large crowd attempting to break through the border fence - the kind of "tough" action Trump said he wanted in a DHS secretary.

Nielsen's job security improved again after she helped persuade Mexican officials to agree to an experimental policy known as the Migrant Protection Protocols, which require asylum seekers to wait in Mexico while their cases work their way through the U.S. court system. That policy began in January.

Nielsen issued a memo last week, ordering a rapid expansion of the program in an attempt to deter the record number of families who continue to arrive each month. Trump has alleged that those who are seeking asylum are scamming the United States and taking advantage of asylum laws to enter the country.

The president grew frustrated with Nielsen again early this year as the number of migrants rose and as she raised legal concerns about some of Trump's more severe impulses, particularly when his demands clashed with U.S. immigration laws and federal court orders. Nielsen also disagreed with the White House's decision to dump Vitiello, who had been on track for Senate confirmation in coming weeks.

Among those pushing the president to remove Nielsen was national security adviser John Bolton, who repeatedly told the president he did not believe she was the right fit for the job, a senior administration official said.

Nielsen's departure adds another key official in an acting position in Trump's Cabinet. He has interim secretaries at the Departments of Defense, Interior and Homeland Security, as well as an acting leader at the Office of Management and Budget.

An acting administrator will lead the Small Business Administration once Linda McMahon officially leaves her post Friday. Mick Mulvaney, the White House chief of staff, also serves in that role on an acting basis.

Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, did not directly reference Nielsen in a statement about her exit, but he emphasized that "we have a crisis at our southwest border."

"We need steady, informed and effective leadership in the administration and in Congress to have any hope of fixing our out-of-control border security and immigration problems," Johnson said Sunday evening.

Ken Cuccinelli, a former Virginia attorney general, is under consideration to become Nielsen's permanent replacement and has been at the White House recently, according to two Republicans involved in the discussions who were not authorized to speak publicly.

Another potential nominee is Energy Secretary Rick Perry, the former Texas governor who is seen as the most easily confirmed. Kris Kobach, the former Kansas secretary of state and a prominent immigration hard-liner, has been floated in the past for the job but is more likely to be involved in the administration as a non-Senate-confirmed adviser.

This article was written by Nick Miroff, Josh Dawsey and Seung Min Kim, reporters for The Washington Post.