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No image makeover for Kirstjen Nielsen

Photo illustration by Lesley Becker/Globe Staff; Adobe; Globe File photos/Globe Staff; Adobe; Globe File photos

Kirstjen Nielsen became the face of a cruel family separation policy championed by President Trump and Stephen Miller, his racist, anti-immigrant Svengali.

It’s a woman’s face. That means payback, always a you-know-what, will be even worse.

Nielsen was ousted as secretary of Homeland Security for being too “weak,” despite her willingness to aggressively enforce Trump administration policies and enthusiastically defend them before Congress. Now liberal activists and commentators are calling for corporate America to shun her. Critics say she should also be banned from prestigious academic appointments and even panels.

No tears shed here for Nielsen. She signed off on a policy that separated children from parents and then detained them behind chained-link fence. She also lied about it. And she didn’t resign in protest. She was forced out. Still, no rehab, ever? An image makeover — challenging for all former Trump officials — will be harder for her. After all, she’s reviled for “ripping children from their parents, embracing hate & racism and habitually lying,” as ProPublica’s Jesse Eisinger tweeted.

Right before Nielsen officially resigned, a coalition of progressive groups wrote “an open letter to America’s CEOs.” It listed senior members of the Trump administration who backed the family separation policy and “should not be allowed to seek refuge in your boardrooms or corner offices. Allowing them to step off the revolving door and into your welcoming arms should be a nonstarter.” Men and women — including Nielsen — made this do-not-hire list. But the zeal to denounce Nielsen has an edge to it that seems specially reserved for women.


Men associated with Trump may not be welcome at Harvard. But there’s always some comeback potential. Nielsen’s mentor and ally, John Kelly, backed Trump immigration policies as Homeland Security chief and then as White House chief of staff. Once he left, Kelly said he should be measured by what he stopped Trump from doing. That’s not enough for Nielsen. Kelly, who just signed with a speaking agency, was quickly called out for using a video in which he defended Trump’s call to a Gold Star widow whose husband died in an ambush, and falsely accused Representative Frederica Wilson of Florida for taking full credit for a new FBI building. But no one’s saying Kelly should be banished for life from speaking for a living.


Sean Spicer, who served as Trump’s press secretary for the first half of 2017, landed at Harvard that fall as a visiting fellow. He couldn’t get a Fox News gig, but he recently signed on as a correspondent for the entertainment news show “Extra.”

According to the Atlantic, H.R. McMaster and James Mattis, who were former national security officials in the administration, are now associated with Stanford University’s conservative Hoover Institution. They had the authority that comes with high-ranking military service, and weren’t associated with a Trump policy like immigration.

Rex Tillerson, the former secretary of state and Exxon Mobil CEO, keeps a low profile but gets respect; he was recently interviewed at a Houston hospital fund-raiser by CBS News veteran Bob Schieffer. Jeff Sessions, the former attorney general, just spoke about the First Amendment to a packed crowd at Montana State University. Steve Bannon, the former White House strategist who is more responsible than anyone for Trump’s White House triumph, is still a sought-after interviewee and is the subject of two documentaries. Anthony Scaramucci, who had a short stint as White House communications director, appears on CNN, where recently he said that pushing the separation of families at the southern border would be a “disastrous agenda” for Trump.


Instead of silencing Nielsen, I would like to hear what she has to say about that now and why she went to the mat for Trump. According to CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin, she will be forever known as “the woman who put children in cages.”

That’s harsh, as harsh as the policies she embraced. It reflects society’s verdict: A woman is supposed to stand up to cruelty, even when a man does not.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.