Hard-liners inside and outside the Trump administration are pressing for the removal of President Donald Trump’s acting Homeland Security secretary amid a rolling leadership purge that began in April and shows no signs of ending, according to five people in the Trump administration and four former Department of Homeland Security officials.
Kevin McAleenan, who took over the post less than three months ago, is under heavy criticism from prominent Trump allies, including former Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director Thomas Homan, who might become the administration’s immigration czar.
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Following the purge of three other immigration officials since the April resignation of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, McAleenan stands accused of disloyalty to the Trump White House’s hard line on immigration because of a perception that he didn’t support ICE raids targeting migrant families scheduled to begin last weekend.
Like three other officials purged from immigration agencies since the April resignation of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, McAleenan stands accused of disloyalty to the Trump White House’s hard line on immigration because of a perception that he didn’t support ICE raids targeting migrant families scheduled to begin last weekend.
Acting Customs and Border Protection Commissioner John Sanders, a McAleenan ally, said Monday that he’ll resign effective July 5. Sanders did not offer a public explanation for his resignation.
Several critics of the administration, including former DHS officials, have characterized the latest shakeup as another instance of White House senior adviser Stephen Miller seizing an opportunity to fill key immigration posts with allies. But one senior administration official said the president also agrees with these stances.
“The two issues the president is driving the train on at all times are trade and immigration,” the official said. “There is disbelief inside the administration that we can’t enforce the law and people are trying to find the right personnel who will do it and not look for ways out of it.”
Miller and DHS did not respond to requests for comment. The White House press office also did not immediately respond to a request for comment on McAleenan.
The turmoil mirrors a chaotic situation along the southern border, where thousands of migrants are arriving each day and detained children are being denied basic necessities like toothbrushes and soap. Current and former DHS employees complain that the leadership turnover and attendant jostling for power have slowed the government’s ability to respond to what is now widely recognized to be a crisis.
“It’s awful for morale,” said one current CBP official. “Whoever’s going to be confirmed to acting [commissioner] next, we’re back to square one, getting a new person briefed. … It’s like starting all over in a transition.”
Homan suggested on “Fox & Friends” that this week’s planned ICE raids were delayed because McAleenan leaked information about them.
“You’ve got the acting secretary of Homeland Security resisting what ICE is trying to do,” Homan said. “In The Washington Post or in numerous media outlets, he does not support this operation, and I tell you what, if that’s his position, then he’s on the wrong side of this issue. You don’t tell the men and women of ICE, a day before they go out there and do this operation — ‘Look, this story was leaked.’ They gave the locations of the cities, the day it was supposed to start, how many targets.”
Homan spoke while sitting in front of a DHS seal, looking like a government official — something he has not been since June 2018. The seal was in a room set up in the basement of his Virginia home, according to two former DHS officials. Trump told Fox News on June 14 that Homan would be his new “border czar,” but Homan said a day later that the announcement was “kind of premature” and indicated that he hadn’t yet decided whether to take the job. An administration official said Wednesday that Homan has not yet been given a clear description of what the job would entail.
“Homan’s getting paid a lot better as border czar of Fox News than border czar of the White House,” said Ali Noorani, executive director of the pro-migrant National Immigration Forum. “And he kind of has the same job, to go on Fox News and carry the administration’s message.”
Several administration officials and hard-line immigration advocates have targeted McAleenan in recent days, arguing behind the scenes that he’s too liberal to run DHS because he served under President Barack Obama and has donated money in the past to Democratic candidates and organizations. Conservative media outlets, including the Washington Examiner, have run critical stories to amplify that narrative.
Brandon Judd, president of a union that represents Border Patrol agents and a Trump ally, also torched McAleenan in a Fox News op-ed over the weekend.
Judd — who has attacked McAleenan in the past for being insufficiently committed to Trump — said that if McAleenan did leak information about the raids, then he “was inexcusably willing to put the public at risk and law enforcement officers in harm’s way in order to further his own agenda.”
“There is no question that the president is sensitive to the lack of progress in resolving this crisis at the border and frustrated with the pace of changes, and it has become increasingly evident that one of the main reasons for the lack of progress is because Kevin McAleenan has been reluctant to take action that would more effective,” said Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the restrictionist Center for Immigration Studies. “A lot of ideas proposed have been bottled up by him and his front office.”
The Trump White House assumed McAleenan could work with Democrats on Capitol Hill to secure more funding and policy changes, since he’s worked under both Republican and Democratic administrations, Vaughan said. But “he has not been able to deliver on those things.”
Within the past month Trump installed a pair of vocal immigration hard-liners in key immigration positions, naming Mark Morgan acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Ken Cuccinelli acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Both had drawn the president’s attention by making provocative statements about immigration on Fox News; Morgan, for instance, said he could tell whether a migrant child would later join MS-13 merely by looking into that child’s eyes.
Morgan appears already on the move. POLITICO and other outlets reported Tuesday that he’s expected to be named the new acting commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, although the White House has not made an official announcement.
Cuccinelli, meanwhile, scored a coveted perk during his first month that his predecessor, Francis Cissna, never enjoyed. Trump designated him to be one of 10 officials to get a government-funded car to drive him from his Virginia home to USCIS headquarters.
A USCIS spokesperson confirmed that Cuccinelli had been granted the benefit, but said that he “is currently driving himself to the office.”
Both newly installed officials occupy new “principal deputy director” positions created at their respective agencies to allow them to serve in an acting capacity under the 1998 Federal Vacancies Reform Act — a bureaucratic sleight-of-hand that could circumvent the confirmation process.
Cuccinelli, a former Virginia attorney general and head of a conservative political action committee, would face a hard road to confirmation in the Senate because he backed challenges to mainstream Republicans in recent years, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Morgan would at the least face strong Democratic opposition.
“I think the White House is looking for a certain model,” said one current administration official. “Cuccinelli and Morgan have been on Fox every day. I don’t think you’ll ever see Sanders up there.”
The latest personnel shake-up happened just days after the administration caught flak for its treatment of roughly 300 migrant children at a Texas facility who were filthy, hungry, and largely unsupervised, according to lawyers who interviewed some of them.
Several conservative immigration advocates said the DHS shake-up was unrelated to the ensuing public outcry, and instead had been brewing for weeks. Moving Morgan to CBP sets the stage for the administration to now get rid of McAleenan, one advocate said.
“Things have not changed at DHS since Nielsen left,” said atop official at a restrictionist immigration organization. “I disagreed with them getting rid of Francis Cissna but right now, they are looking in the right place.”
But “having all of this churn and not having stable leadership makes it very difficult to address the problems,” said Leon Fresco, former deputy assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s Office of Immigration Litigation. “Whenever you change a leader, you automatically lose a month as the person gets acclimated.”
Gabby Orr contributed to this report.