WASHINGTON — Kirstjen Nielsen and other longtime civil servants stood outside the Department of Homeland Security's new headquarters Wednesday in the breezy sunshine — a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a building they'd never work in.
Nielsen, homeland security secretary for a few more hours, stood smiling next to her replacement. Both held giant gold scissors, and on a count of three, they sliced through the blue ribbon together. If there were bad feelings or awkwardness, they weren't on display. The event felt more like a graduation than the bloodbath orchestrated by the White House this week to axe the agency's leadership.
Nielsen, for her part, seemed relaxed as she stepped to the podium to address her employees one last time. She spoke of their accomplishments together, and cracked a joke about how construction took so long she almost didn't see the new headquarters, erected at the site of an old federal psychiatric hospital.
"But I just made it," she said.
Nielsen resigned Sunday, ending a tumultuous tenure at the helm of a sprawling department of 240,000 people responsible for border security, disaster relief, cyber security, counterterrorism and other missions. She finally had enough after the most recent tangle with President Donald Trump and his aides over the increase of Central American migrants crossing the Southern border, and Trump's growing frustration.
The resignation was fueled partly because Trump had suddenly withdrawn the nomination of Immigration and Customs Enforcement leader Ron Vitiello without telling anyone, and wanted to shake up leadership, people familiar with the matter said. The people weren't authorized to speak publicly and spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.
Vitiello was there Wednesday, sitting on the end of the front row of white folding chairs, shortly after sending a letter to his employees saying his last day at ICE was Friday, capping more than three decades of border work.
Nielsen was introduced at the podium by Claire Grady, acting deputy secretary and civil servant of more than 28 years. She was next in line to become secretary but had been forced to resign when Trump decided to name Kevin McAleenan, the head of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, as acting secretary. Both women got standing ovations. Both were leaving after Wednesday.
McAleenan, sat on the other side of the row of folding chairs, next to Transportation Security Administration head David Pekoske, who was taking Grady's place. Outgoing Secret Service Director Randolph "Tex" Alles, ousted by Trump for personal reasons, sat there too.
Dozens of other employees gathered on the grass behind the folding chairs, in the shadow of a stately brick building, one of the original structures of the old St. Elizabeth's facility — the first federally run psychiatric facility, where John Hinckley Jr., the man who shot President Ronald Reagan, was once held.
Nielsen, who pushed for the new headquarters, told her employees she was grateful and proud of their work. She told them to stay positive, even during tough times.
"Working at DHS is a calling," Nielsen said. "It is not for everyone. It takes courage, commitment, grit, innovation and hard work."
She walked over to the front doors and handed scissors to McAleenan, Grady and Pekoske. After the ribbon was cut, they all posed for a photo before heading inside the doors. Nielsen later swore McAleenan in as the new acting secretary.
In McAleenan's absence, chief operating officer John Sanders will run Customs and Border Protection. It wasn't entirely clear who would assume the top positions at the agencies now left open. Lee Francis Cissna, the head of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, still has his job, though the White House was eyeing him, too.
Meanwhile, as congressional leaders fretted over the lack of permanent leadership at Homeland Security, Trump on Wednesday reminded everyone who was in charge of immigration policy around here: him.8 comments on this story
Asked by reporters whether he had considered tapping his influential aide, Stephen Miller, to lead the Department of Homeland Security given Miller's focus on the issue, Trump was ready with praise — but not a promotion.
"Stephen is an excellent guy. He's wonderful person. ... He's a brilliant man," Trump said as he departed for Texas. But "frankly, there's only one person that's running it," Trump said. "You know who that is? It's me."
Associated Press writers Jill Colvin, Deb Riechmann and Darlene Superville in Washington contributed to this report.