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Photo: Evan Vucci / AP

A lot of people were surprised on Wednesday when word got out that President Trump would appoint Kirstjen Nielsen as the new secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. Those surprised included just about the entire leadership of the department, including the Acting DHS Secretary Elaine Duke.

Duke emailed senior DHS staff around noon on Wednesday and told them she wanted to do a conference call because General Kelly had just informed her that the president had picked a new DHS Secretary. There was silence on the call when she told them it was Nielsen.

Nielsen is not a beloved figure at DHS; just as she wasn't inside the White House. She has a very sharp-elbowed approach to doing business and doesn't command anywhere near the respect that her predecessor, Kelly, did, according to more than half a dozen sources who've worked with her.

  • Two sources familiar with the situation told me that the reaction inside DHS has been widespread shock at her appointment. There are only a few senior staff at the agency who are loyal to Nielsen. They include Elizabeth Neumann, who was Nielsen's deputy when she was chief of staff at DHS under Kelly, and Jonathan Hoffman, the assistant secretary of public affairs at the agency.

The backstory:

  • Nine months ago it would be unimaginable to senior DHS staff that Nielsen would run their agency. She wasn't even Kelly's first choice for the chief of staff job. The former DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson, a good friend of Kelly's, had highly recommended he retain Alan Metzler, an Obama holdover. Kelly liked the idea and submitted his name to the White House.
  • The White House explained to Kelly why Metzler was not a good pick. He accepted their advice and appointed Nielsen.
  • Three sources familiar with the situation said Nielsen was torn between whether she wanted to be Kelly's chief of staff or whether she wanted to run the DHS's powerful cyber wing, the National Protection and Programs Directorate.
  • Kelly interviewed a lot of people for the NPPD undersecretary job and ultimately submitted Nielsen's name.
  • The White House personnel office agreed with the appointment and President Trump signed off on it. But then nothing happened.Why this matters: The president never announced her nomination — leaving the crucial role, with responsibilities for protecting critical U.S. infrastructure from cyber threats, unfilled. It's one of the most critical and visible faces of cyber security for both the private sector and federal networks."
  • In the meantime, Trump appointed Kelly as White House chief of staff and he brought Nielsen over as his deputy. She had broad control of the policy process inside the West Wing.
  • Nielsen withdrew her name from the NPPD position when she was already at the White House. The widespread understanding inside DHS was that she withdrawing to be principle deputy chief of staff at the White House.

The response: Asked to comment for this story, the top DHS spokesman, Jonathan Hoffman said: "Ms Nielsen was a highly effective and well respected chief of staff to the department before and we expect that she will be a highly effective and well respected Secretary of Homeland Security if confirmed."

Go deeper

At least 3 dead after Amtrak train derails in Montana

Photo: Jacob Cordeiro/Twitter

An Amtrak train derailed near Joplin, Montana, resulting in at least three deaths and multiple injuries to passengers and crew on Saturday, per authorities and a company statement.

The big picture: 141 passengers and 16 crew members were estimated to be on the Empire Builder train, traveling from Chicago to Seattle and Portland, when eight of the 10 cars derailed about 4p.m., Amtrak said early Sunday.

Updated 7 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Federal judge blocks vaccine mandate for NYC teachers

Students are dismissed from the first day of school at PS 133 in Brooklyn on Sept. 13. Photo: Michael Nagle/Xinhua via Getty Images

A federal appeals court is set to hear a challenge Wednesday to a vaccine mandate planned for New York City school employees.

Why it matters The vaccine mandate was set to begin on Monday, prompting concerns over staffing shortages in schools across the nation's largest school system. But a judge on Friday temporarily blocked the measure, per AP.

New York prepares for staff shortages from health vaccine mandate

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul during a news conference Tuesday in New York City.. Photo: Mark Kauzlarich/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) announced Saturday she would declare a state of emergency if there were health worker shortages due to New York's upcoming COVID-19 vaccine mandate.

Why it matters: Hochul moved to reassure concerns of staffing shortages in the health care sector in a statement that also outlined plans to call in medically trained National Guard members, workers from outside New York and retirees if necessary when the mandate takes effect Monday.