Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

Early on in the January government shutdown, there was a meeting in the White House Situation Room between President Trump, then-Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, administration staff and congressional leaders from both parties.

Behind the scenes: Nielsen was trying to explain the chaos at the border. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi kept interrupting her, saying she thought the Trump administration was manufacturing the crisis and distorting statistics, according to four sources who were in the room.

So Nielsen, visibly frustrated with Pelosi, turned to Kevin McAleenan, then the head of Customs and Border Protection (last week, Trump gave him her job). He was sitting along the wall with the other staff, behind the main table.

  • Nielsen asked McAleenan to dig into the figures and explain some of the intricacies of the situation. "She was like, 'You don't have to listen to me because I am the president's DHS secretary; listen to the career professional,'" one source recalled.
  • Pelosi interjected that McAleenan was also one of the president's people.
  • Then Trump said of McAleenan: "He's an Obama guy!"
  • McAleenan replied quietly that he was a career guy before becoming a political appointee under Trump.

A senior White House official said Trump "was trying to say Kevin has credibility on the issue and worked in another administration."

  • And Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill responded: "It is a statement of fact that this administration has used false statistics in an effort to support their anti-immigrant policies that are creating a massive humanitarian challenge at the border."

Between the lines: It's a bit ironic that Trump's pick to make DHS more aggressive is someone he called "an Obama guy."

Editor's note: This post has been corrected to reflect the fact that McAleenan was the commissioner of Customs and Border Protection (not Nielsen's deputy).

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