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Department of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen speaks as President Donald Trump holds a roundtable discussion with law enforcement officials. Photo: MANDEL NGAN / AFP / Getty Images

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen has become Trump’s immigration scapegoat — which generates friction between the president and his chief of staff, John Kelly, who is extremely close with her and believes his criticism of her is unwarranted and misplaced.

The bottom line: From when Nielsen was first nominated as secretary of homeland security, Trump had misgivings. I’ve learned that Trump even threatened to pull Nielsen’s nomination in a heated Oval Office meeting the week after she was nominated. Trump had been watching several Fox News personalities, including Ann Coulter, rip Nielsen as soft on the border. And as the Washington Post first reported, Trump claimed not to have known that Nielsen worked for George W. Bush, who he views as worse than most Democrats.

Kelly was standing up in the Oval and left the room visibly agitated, according to sources with direct knowledge. As Kelly was walking out he said, “Maybe I should just quit then.” Kelly stood by Nielsen, she got the job, and it doesn’t seem to be in jeopardy.  

Since then, she’s taken on an unforgiving role: having to shoot down the president’s frequently unvetted immigration enforcement ideas (including a recent suggestion to send active duty military — not simply National Guard — to the border.) A senior administration source said some of Trump’s unvetted ideas are coming from people outside the White House, including Fox News personalities. The source added that Nielsen fully supports the president on the wall and on closing loopholes, but often had to be “Ms. No.” Trump was being fed legally unvetted ideas that would look flashy on TV but are of dubious operational value.  

Kelly has been trying to direct Trump’s ire away from Nielsen and toward Congress, according to sources with direct knowledge.

The result: Trump lashes out at Nielsen and blames her — as well as Congress — for the uptick in illegal crossings of the southern border. There’s no empirical reason to think Nielsen has done anything to cause more illegal immigration — violence in Mexico is a likely culprit and the administration has argued that congressional inaction is to blame as smugglers and others feel emboldened after an initial "Trump effect." But Trump sees the bad numbers and recalls that the influx of illegal immigrants was going down when Kelly ran DHS.

What’s next: The administration is putting together a legislation package to see to address the loopholes in the system and the failures at the southern border.  

Go deeper

Collins helps contractor before pro-Susan PAC gets donation

Sen. Susan Collins during her reelection campaign. Photo: Scott Eisen/Getty Images

A PAC backing Sen. Susan Collins in her high-stakes reelection campaign received $150,000 from an entity linked to the wife of a defense contractor whose firm Collins helped land a federal contract, new public records show.

Why it matters: The executive, Martin Kao of Honolulu, leaned heavily on his political connections to boost his business, federal prosecutors say in an ongoing criminal case against him. The donation linked to Kao was veiled until last week.

How cutting GOP corporate cash could backfire

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Companies pulling back on political donations, particularly to members of Congress who voted against certifying President Biden's election win, could inadvertently push Republicans to embrace their party's rightward fringe.

Why it matters: Scores of corporate PACs have paused, scaled back or entirely abandoned their political giving programs. While designed to distance those companies from events that coincided with this month's deadly siege on the U.S. Capitol, research suggests the moves could actually empower the far-right.

6 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Scoop: Kaine, Collins pitch Senate colleagues on censuring Trump

Sen. Tim Kaine speaks with Sen. Susan Collins. Photo: Andrew Harnik/AP via Getty Images

Sens. Tim Kaine and Susan Collins are privately pitching their colleagues on a bipartisan resolution censuring former President Trump, three sources familiar with the discussions tell Axios.

Why it matters: Senators are looking for a way to condemn Trump on the record as it becomes increasingly unlikely Democrats will obtain the 17 Republican votes needed to gain a conviction in his second impeachment.