Trump eyes purge at Homeland Security after ousting Nielsen

US President Donald Trump has been mulling for at least the last week the appointment of a possible immigration "czar" for his administration.
US President Donald Trump has been mulling for at least the last week the appointment of a possible immigration "czar" for his administration. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (BLOOMBERG) - United States President Donald Trump is considering the removal of more top officials at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) after demanding the resignation of Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, as he purges the agency out of frustration over a spike in illegal border crossings.

The White House announced on Monday (April 8) that Secret Service director Randolph Alles would leave the administration, joining Ms Nielsen, who announced she would resign effective Wednesday.

DHS Undersecretary for Management Claire Grady is likely to be removed or reassigned to clear the way for Mr Trump's preferred replacement for Ms Nielsen, Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan.

Two other top officials at DHS - Mr L Francis Cissna, the head of US Citizenship and Immigration Services and Mr John Mitnik, the agency's general counsel - may also depart.

And the leadership of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) remains in upheaval after Mr Trump last week pulled the nomination of acting director Ronald Vitiello, saying he wanted to go in "a tougher direction."

The reshuffling at the department, perceived to be the work of Mr Trump's freshly empowered hardline aide Stephen Miller, has alarmed many of the White House's Republican allies - even those who share the president's desire to crack down on undocumented immigration.

They questioned whether Mr Trump has a plan to control the US border with Mexico, where more than 66,000 migrants were apprehended in February alone, or if he is only adding to a long list of vacancies in the top ranks of the government's immigration agencies.

Mr Trump also risks damaging political relationships.

Mr Cissna is a former staff for Senator Chuck Grassley, and the Iowa Republican said in a tweet that he's doing "an excellent job" at DHS. Some Mr Trump advisers said it would be unwise for the president to cross the senator.

Mr Miller is eyeing other people in the government who were hired after recommendations or referrals by Ms Nielsen or former White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, two people familiar with the matter said.

Mr Kelly preceded Ms Nielsen at DHS and recommended her as his replacement. He departed the White House late last year after repeated clashes with the president.

'CONSTANT TURNOVER'

Senator Dianne Feinstein, the senior Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, said in a statement that at least 10 top positions at Homeland Security are vacant or filled by people in an "acting" capacity.

They include the secretary, who is resigning Wednesday, as well as the deputy secretary, ICE director, Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator, inspector general, undersecretary for policy, undersecretary for science and technology, chief financial officer and chief privacy officer, she said.

 
 
 

"Immigration policy is certainly an important part of DHS's mission, but it's not the only responsibility," Ms Feinstein said. "The department is tasked with preventing terrorism, preparing for and responding to disasters, providing maritime safety and security and coordinating our cybersecurity efforts, to name a few of its jobs. Those responsibilities are being undermined by the constant turnover and long-term vacancies."

Many officials departing the administration were regarded by Mr Trump and his advisers as either career bureaucrats or loyalists to former DHS secretary and White House chief of staff Kelly who were unwilling to enact politically controversial or legally dubious policies demanded by the president. The reverberations are sure to be felt throughout the sprawling bureaucracy.

"I am concerned with a growing leadership void within the department tasked with addressing some of the most significant problems facing the nation," Senator Ron Johnson, the Wisconsin Republican who chairs the Homeland Security Committee, said in a statement.

But at the White House, officials signalled that they expect the dramatic turnover to produce equally dramatic results on the southern border, where the largest surge in migration since 2014 has outraged the president, threatening to undermine his central campaign promise headed into his bid for re-election.

Migrant apprehensions in February increased by more than 18,000 from a month earlier, and Ms Nielsen has said that nearly 100,000 people would be caught crossing the border in March. Most of them are families or unaccompanied children.

The White House hopes Mr McAleenan's appointment will "lead to some massive changes along the southern border," spokesman Hogan Gidley said on Monday.

IMMIRAGTION CZAR

Separately, Mr Trump has been mulling for at least the last week the appointment of a possible immigration "czar" for his administration, according to multiple people familiar with the matter.

The hope is to appoint an official that the president and his top advisers believe can accelerate his policies, including construction of more border wall.

The people asked not to be identified because Mr Trump's plans are not public.

Mr Trump's candidates for high-ranking immigration positions include former Kansas secretary of state Kris Kobach and former acting director of ICE, Mr Thomas Homan, who is a favourite of the president and Mr Miller, according to two people familiar with the matter. One person said former acting attorney-general Matthew Whitaker has also been mentioned.

Mr Homan said in an interview with Bloomberg Radio that he would "take the call" if he was asked to discuss replacing Ms Nielsen or becoming immigration czar. But he said shutting down the US border with Mexico should be a "last resort" to controlling migration.

The hard-line faction within the White House, led by Mr Miller, expects that new, more ideologically aligned advisers can implement some of the more dramatic measures the president appears willing to take to stem the tide at the border.

CNN reported on Monday that Mr Trump wants to stop allowing migrants to claim asylum in the US, and that Ms Nielsen had tried to explain to him - in vain, as it turns out - that such a move would not be legal.

NBC News and CNN also reported on Monday that Mr Trump desires to reinstate a policy that led to the separation of thousands of migrant children from their families last summer after they crossed the border.

The separations caused broad outrage in Congress and among the US public, but Mr Trump believes the policy deterred migrants from trying to enter the country, CNN reported. He signed an executive order in June to end the practice after a federal judge ordered the administration to better account for the children and to reunite families.

Separately, a court ruled on Monday that the Trump administration cannot force migrants claiming US asylum to wait in Mexico while their immigration cases proceed, a policy Ms Nielsen tested late last year and had sought to expand.

BORDER IMPACT

White House officials would not confirm that Mr Trump wants to reinstate family separations but acknowledged he wants to modify a decades-old legal settlement so that the government can detain migrant families together for longer periods of time.

Late last month, Mr Trump threatened to fully close the border with Mexico, only to retreat later after economic advisers showed that a sustained, full-scale closure of border crossings could damage the US economy.

Mr Trump was presented with economic models that showed a "pretty strong" impact if freight between the two countries was halted, White House economist Kevin Hassett told reporters on Monday.

Mr Trump may face other legal challenges in his bid to reshape the Homeland Security department. His decision to promote Mr McAleenan contradicts federal law that puts Ms Grady, the department's undersecretary for management, next in line for the job.

"I strongly urge you to follow the law in this matter and to nominate a suitable candidate for secretary as expeditiously as possible," the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, Democrat Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, wrote to Mr Trump on Monday.

Mr Trump's aides have said the president wanted Mr McAleenan to lead the department because of his knowledge of immigration issues. Ms Grady's government service has focused largely on defence procurement and acquisition.

"Kevin wants to implement what the president is pushing," Mr Gidley said.