Kirstjen Nielsen said she resigned from the Trump administration because 'saying no' was 'not going to be enough'

  • Former Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said Tuesday she resigned from the Trump administration because she realized that "saying no" to certain things was "not going to be enough."
  • Nielsen was interviewed at Fortune's Most Powerful Women Summit about her resignation and her oversight of the separation of thousands of migrant families.
  • She defended her actions, saying her job was to "enforce the law, not to separate families."
  • She added that her only regrets were that the policies didn't resolve the issue of migrant border-crossings, and that her department hadn't arranged for a plan to reunite the families once they were separated.

Former Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen told an audience on Tuesday that she resigned in April because "saying no" to certain people within the Trump administration was "not going to be enough."

Nielsen was interviewed at Fortune's Most Powerful Women Summit by PBS Newshour's Amna Nawaz, who pressed the former Trump official about her implementation of the notorious "zero tolerance" border policy, which separated thousands of migrant families last year.

When asked why she eventually resigned, Nielsen sought to cast herself as a voice of conscience within the administration, saying she had tried to stop certain efforts, but ultimately realized she couldn't.

"There were a lot of things that, there were those in the administration who thought that we should do, and just as I spoke truth to power from the very beginning, it became clear that saying no, and refusing to do it myself was not going to be enough, so it was time for me to offer my resignation," Nielsen said.

Nielsen also pushed back against a number of questions about the Trump administration's family separations, echoing her previous statements that her actions were to "enforce the law, not to separate families."

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Former Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen
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Former Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen
FILE - In this April 10, 2019, file photo, outgoing Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen speaks at the dedication ceremony at the Homeland Security headquarters Center Building at the old St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington. Nielsen was told by President Donald Trump’s chief of staff not to bring up election security in meetings with the president, but she continued to push the issue with administration and international leaders despite the lack of White House coordination. That’s according to people familiar with the matter. Nielsen, who resigned in April, had made cybersecurity a focus of her tenure there. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File)
Una sonriente Kirstjen Nielsen hace declaraciones a la prensa frente a su casa de Alexandria, Virginia, el lunes 8 de abril del 2019, dos días después de renunciar como secretaria de seguridad nacional de EEUU. (AP Photo/Kevin Wolf)
Outgoing Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen speaks at the dedication ceremony at the Homeland Security headquarters Center Building at the old St. Elizabeths Hospital, Wednesday, April 10, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
La exsecretaria de Seguridad Nacional Kirstjen Nielsen habla afuera de su residencia en Alexandria, Virginia, el lunes 8 de abril de 2019. (AP Foto/Kevin Wolf)
Outgoing Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen speaks at the dedication ceremony at the Homeland Security headquarters Center Building at the old St. Elizabeths Hospital, Wednesday, April 10, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 11: Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen looks on during the Conference for Prosperity and Security in Central America on October 11, 2018 in Washington, DC. Leaders from the Central American countries of Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras met with U.S. leaders at the second Conference for Prosperity and Security in Central America. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Outgoing Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, left, speaks accompanied by outgoing acting deputy secretary Claire Grady, at the dedication ceremony at the Homeland Security headquarters Center Building at the old St. Elizabeths Hospital, Wednesday, April 10, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
Kirstjen Nielsen testifies to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on her nomination to be secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in Washington, U.S., November 8, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
US Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen M. Nielsen (2nd R) smiles Border Patrol officer Gloria Chavez (C) beside a plaque with Presidents Trump's name on it at the first completed section of Trumps 30-foot border wall in the El Centro Sector, at the US Mexico border in Calexico, California on October 26, 2018. (Photo by Mark RALSTON / AFP) (Photo credit should read MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)
Kirstjen Nielsen is sworn in before testifying to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on her nomination to be secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in Washington, U.S., November 8, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
Kirstjen Nielsen, U.S. secretary of Homeland Security nominee, listens to an introduction from U.S. President Donald Trump at the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, Oct. 12, 2017. Trump�announced his nomination of Nielsen, a top aide to White House Chief of Staff�John Kelly, to succeed him as secretary of Homeland Security. Photographer: T.J. Kirkpatrick/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Kirstjen Nielsen testifies to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on her nomination to be secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in Washington, U.S., November 8, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 11: Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen (C) and Mexico Secretary of Government Alfonso Navarrete (R) look on as U.S. Vice President Mike Pence speaks during the Conference for Prosperity and Security in Central America on October 11, 2018 in Washington, DC. Leaders from the Central American countries of Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras met with U.S. leaders at the second Conference for Prosperity and Security in Central America. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump listens to his Secretary of Homeland Security nominee Kirstjen Nielsen in the East Room of the White House in Washington, U.S., October 12, 2017. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas
REFILE - ADDING DETAIL: White House Chief of Staff John Kelly (R) walks with Kirstjen Nielsen, the chief of staff at the Department of Homeland Security, on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, U.S., before his departure with President Donald Trump to Yuma, Arizona, August 22, 2017. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas
U.S. President Donald Trump smiles as he introduces his Secretary of Homeland Security nominee Kirstjen Nielsen in the East Room of the White House in Washington, U.S., October 12, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
UNITED STATES - NOVEMBER 08: Kirstjen Nielsen, Homeland Security Department secretary nominee, is introduced by Sens. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, left, and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., during her Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee confirmation hearing in Dirksen Building on November 8, 2017. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 12: White House Deputy Chief of Staff Kirstjen Nielsen speaks during a nomination announcement at the East Room of the White House October 12, 2017 in Washington, DC. President Donald Trump has nominated Nielsen to be the next homeland security secretary, the position that has left vacant by Chief of Staff John Kelly. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 12: U.S. President Donald Trump shakes the hand of White House Deputy Chief of Staff Kirstjen Nielsen during a nomination announcement at the East Room of the White House October 12, 2017 in Washington, DC. President Trump has nominated Nielsen to be the next homeland security secretary, the position that has left vacant by Chief of Staff John Kelly. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Kirstjen Nielsen listens as US President Donald Trump nominates her as next US Secretary of Homeland Security in the East Room of the White House October 12, 2017 in Washington, DC. / AFP PHOTO / Mandel NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Secretary of Homeland Security nominee Kirstjen Nielsen smiles after U.S. President Donald Trump introduced Nielsen in the East Room of the White House in Washington, U.S., October 12, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
Outgoing Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, front center left, cuts a ribbon accompanied by outgoing acting deputy secretary Claire Grady, front center right, Incoming Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan, front left, and Administrator of the Transportation Security Administration David Pekoske, front right at the dedication ceremony at the Homeland Security headquarters Center Building at the old St. Elizabeths Hospital, Wednesday, April 10, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
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But she conceded that her department had pushed forward with the separations without first having a plan to reunite the migrant families.

"What I regret is that we haven't solved it, and what I regret was that that information flow and coordination to quickly reunite the families was clearly not in place and that's why the practice was stopped through an executive order," she said.

Read more: 'We've seen this coming': Why migrant children are dying in Border Patrol custody

Nielsen's presence at the Fortune summit had already garnered backlash before she arrived. The singer Brandi Carlile and the filmmaker dream hampton both pulled out of the summit after learning Nielsen would be there.

"I don't think that human rights violators and merit-based abusers of displaced people should be given a platform to 'reimagine' history. Ever," Carlile tweeted Monday.

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