Looking for help on immigration, the Trump administration is silent in the face of Guatemala’s effort to seal its dirty war archive.
With the quiet acquiescence of the Trump administration, the Guatemalan government is threatening to bar access to a collection of national archives that have been at the core of various attempts to prosecute Guatemalan politicians and officers responsible for some of Latin America’s most heinous atrocities.
The move to suppress the archives is part of a larger campaign by Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales, who faces allegations of receiving illicit campaign funds, to undercut the rule of law through the purge of judges, police officials, and archivists who have been at the forefront of Guatemala’s effort to investigate corruption, narcotrafficking, and war crimes, according to foreign diplomats and independent experts.
But senior U.S. officials in Washington and Guatemala City have rebuffed appeals from working-level staffers and foreign diplomats to publicly challenge Guatemala’s action. And U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration, which is seeking Guatemala’s help in stemming the flow of asylum-seekers and refugees into the United States, has remained largely silent over these developments.
One U.S. official said that America’s reluctance to confront Guatemala is part of a crude unwritten bargain between Morales’s government and the Trump administration: “They promise not to let brown people into the country, and we let them get away with everything else,” the official said.
The “assault on the police archive [is part of a] broader attack against human rights, justice, and anti-corruption efforts,” said Kate Doyle, a researcher at the National Security Archive and an expert on the Guatemalan archives. “The U.S. is saying nothing. The U.S. Embassy has been incredibly absent on these issues. They are not doing anything.”
In the latest sign of U.S. reluctance to challenge Guatemala on human rights, Kimberly Breier, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, blocked the release of a public statement in early June that would have urged Guatemala to back down on its effort to restrict access to the archives.
“These archives are an essential source of information to clarify and understand critical historical truths from Guatemala’s history,” reads the statement obtained by Foreign Policy, which was suppressed in June. “Access to the archives by historians, victims of abuse recorded in these archives and their families, the public, and the international community, has furthered Guatemala’s progress towards accountability, justice, truth and reconciliation.”
Foreign Policy sought a response from the Trump administration last Wednesday. The State Department did not respond until nearly an hour and half after this article was published Tuesday.
“The United States strongly supports continued public access to the Historical Archive of the National Police,” according to a statement from a spokesperson from the State Department’s Bureau of Western Hemispheric Affairs. The Tuesday statement included the two sentence cited by Foreign Policy in the suppressed statement.
The initial decision to block the statement—which had been approved by the State Department press office, the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala, and several other key bureaus—came as the United States was engaged in sensitive negotiations on a so-called safe third country agreement, which would commit Guatemala to process political asylum claims from foreigners, particularly from El Salvador and Honduras, who cross its border in transit to the United States. “My understanding is Kim Breier killed this because she didn’t want to do anything that would piss off the Guatemalans,” said one congressional aide.
During the past two decades, the United States has invested in efforts to strengthen the rule of law in Guatemala,
- funding a United Nations commission that investigates corruption and illicit activities by armed groups,
- strengthening the judiciary, and
- training and equipping police units with expertise in counternarcotics and corruption.
- The United States has spent millions of dollars over the years to preserve the police archives, including through the provision of document scanners and the funding of a digitized archive maintained by scholars at the University of Texas at Austin.
Guatemala’s bloody 36-year-long civil war resulted in the deaths of about 200,000 people, mostly at the hands of the Guatemalan security forces. A 1996 U.N.-brokered peace agreement paved the way for the return of exiled rebels, established a new national police force, and pried open the door to the prospect of public reckoning for crimes committed during the war. The Guatemalan military and police resisted, denying that they had preserved detailed records of their activities during the conflict. But in 2005, more than 80 million documents and records, dating from 1882 to 1997, were discovered in seven rat-infested rooms at an unused hospital building in Guatemala City owned by Guatemala’s now-defunct National Police.
Since then, the Guatemalan National Police Historical Archive has helped convict more than 30 military officers, soldiers and paramilitaries, including a former presidential chief of staff, Manuel Callejas y Callejas, convicted of crimes against humanity, and Guatemala’s late dictator, Gen. Rios Montt—who was found guilty in 2013 of genocide for overseeing mass atrocities in the early 1980s — though his conviction was later overturned by Guatemala’s constitutional court.
The archive has proved a valuable resource for U.S. law enforcement. The Department of Justice and Immigration and Customs Enforcement have used the archive to identify Guatemalan rights abusers living in the United States.
But the management of the archives has long infuriated some of those in Guatemala’s most powerful business and security sectors, who believed that it has been used as a tool of the left to gain revenge against their former enemies. They have cited the role of the archive’s former director, Gustavo Meoño Brenner, a former guerrilla leader who has recruited staff from the country’s left wing to run the archives. In August 2018, the U.N. Development Program, which has helped administer the archive program since 2008, abruptly dismissed Meoño Brenner. He has since fled the country, following death threats.
The move to restrict archive access is only one element of a wider effort to defang justice institutions in Guatemala. In September, a landmark U.N. International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala—known by its Spanish acronym, CICIG—whose corruption investigations landed a Guatemalan president and vice president in jail will shutter its office.
The demise of the commission, which had also exposed alleged illegal campaign contributions in Morales’s 2015 presidential campaign, came after a two-year-long effort by the president and his allies, including sympathetic Republican lawmakers and Trump administration officials in Washington, to undermine it. Pro-military lawmakers in the Guatemalan Congress, meanwhile, have been pressing to pass an amnesty law that would result in the release of dozens of military officers and death squad leaders from jail. That effort has been stalled by Guatemala’s Constitutional Court.
The effort to suppress the archives is being spearheaded by Guatemalan Interior Minister Enrique Degenhart, a popular figure in Washington, who has represented Guatemala in the safe third country negotiations.
In a May 27 press conference, Degenhart announced that his office and Guatemala’s National Civil Police would seek greater control of the archive. He also threatened to limit access to the archives by foreign institutions, an apparent reference to the University of Texas at Austin, which has assembled a massive digitized version of a large portion of the police archive. “You can’t allow foreign institutions to have the complete archives,” Degenhart told reporters.
In response, the U.N. and other foreign envoys invited the U.S. ambassador to Guatemala, Luis Arreaga, to join ambassadors from several other countries, including Canada, Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, and the United Kingdom, on a visit to the archive to voice opposition to granting police greater control over the archives. Arreaga declined. The spokesperson from the State Department Bureau of Western Hemispheric Affairs declined to comment on whether Arreaga declined the invitation.
In Washington, State Department officials sought support within the administration for a public statement that would place the United States squarely on the side of those seeking to preserve broad public access to the archives.
“The message [Guatemalan authorities] are getting is we don’t care what you do as long as you do everything in your power to prevent” foreigners from reaching the U.S. border, said Rep. Norma Torres, a California Democrat who was born in Guatemala. If that requires “supporting a corrupt government, that is what [the Trump administration] is going to do.”
Public messaging and statements from U.S. envoys and the State Department can have an outsized political impact in Central America, former diplomats say. “It’s astonishing how important the U.S. voice is in terms of journalists, human rights defenders, civil society … in this region,” said Roberta Jacobson, a former U.S. ambassador to Mexico and assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs. “There are clearly things that governments would do, actions it would take, but for the U.S. watching and speaking out,” she said.
The lack of response, according to diplomats, emboldened Guatemala to ratchet up its campaign against the archives.
In early July, the Guatemalan Ministry of Culture and Sports informed the U.N. Development Program, which administers the archive budget on behalf of foreign donors, that it would take over full management of the archives, raising questions about its financial viability. The U.N., which pays staff salaries, was forced to lay off the archives researchers and archivists.
On July 10, Guatemala fired its chief national archivist, Anna Carla Ericastilla, on the grounds that she provided access to foreign institutions, including the University of Texas, and improperly raised funds from donors to pay salaries to archivists.
Degenhart, meanwhile, has overseen a massive purge of Guatemala’s reformed police force after being named interior minister in January 2018. The following month, he fired the director of the National Civil Police, Nery Ramos, along with three other top cops. All told, Degenhart fired some 25 ranking officers and more than 100 agents, including 20 of the 45 police agents assigned to work with the U.N. anti-corruption office.
Guatemalans “have observed a systematic process of dismantling the National Civil Police, ordered by the interior minister himself, who seems determined to destroy 20 years of progress,” according to an August 2018 study by the Forum of Civil Society Organizations Specializing in Security, or FOSS.
The fate of the archive has become inextricably linked to the White House immigration policy.
The threat to curtail access to the archives came on the same day that Degenhart had signed an agreement with Kevin McAleenan, the acting U.S. secretary of homeland security, for the deployment of 89 agents from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection in Guatemala to help stem the flow of refugees through the country. It also coincided with the Trump administration’s negotiation of a safe third party agreement with Degenhart.
Trump in March ordered all U.S. aid to Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras to be cut until they drastically reduced the number of migrants traveling north through Mexico to attempt to enter the United States. Critics, including both Democratic and Republican lawmakers, said the move would only exacerbate the migration crisis, as U.S. assistance helped address root causes of instability that caused people to flee north.
In June, the State Department announced it would release $432 million of the $615 million in aid to Central America, but it warned that new funding would not be released until the Northern Triangle governments took more steps to address migration.
Last week, the Trump administration announced that it had reached agreement on the safe third country pact, which would commit Guatemala to processing political asylum claims from migrants who cross its border in transit to the United States. The U.S. has yet to publish a copy of the pact, leading to speculation about what the deal actually entails.
Still, the move has raised concern about the constitutionality of the agreement. Guatemala’s constitutional court has already asserted that such an agreement would require approval by the Guatemalan Congress. Democratic lawmakers and other activists have criticized the move and vowed to fight it in courts. Democratic Rep. Eliot Engel, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said it is “cruel and immoral. It is also illegal.”
“Simply put, Guatemala is not a safe country for refugees and asylum seekers, as the law requires,” Engel said in a statement released on July 26, after the Trump administration and Guatemalan government signed the agreement.
Last Monday, when President Trump tweeted that his Administration would stage nationwide immigration raids the following week, with the goal of deporting “millions of illegal aliens,” agents at Immigration and Customs Enforcement were suddenly forced to scramble. The agency was not ready to carry out such a large operation. Preparations that would typically take field officers six to eight weeks were compressed into a few days, and, because of Trump’s tweet, the officers would be entering communities that now knew they were coming. “It was a dumb-shit political move that will only hurt the agents,” John Amaya, a former deputy chief of staff at ice, told me. On Saturday, hours before the operation was supposed to start in ten major cities across the country, the President changed course, delaying it for another two weeks.
On Sunday, I spoke to an ice officer about the week’s events. “Almost nobody was looking forward to this operation,” the officer said. “It was a boondoggle, a nightmare.” Even on the eve of the operation, many of the most important details remained unresolved. “This was a family op. So where are we going to put the families? There’s no room to detain them, so are we going to put them in hotels?” the officer said. On Friday, an answer came down from ice leadership: the families would be placed in hotels while ice figured out what to do with them. That, in turn, raised other questions. “So the families are in hotels, but who’s going to watch them?” the officer continued. “What happens if the person we arrest has a U.S.-citizen child? What do we do with the children? Do we need to get booster seats for the vans? Should we get the kids toys to play with?” Trump’s tweet broadcasting the operation had also created a safety issue for the officers involved. “No police agency goes out and says, ‘Tomorrow, between four and eight, we’re going to be in these neighborhoods,’ ” the officer said.
The idea for the operation took hold in the White House last September, two months after a federal judge had ordered the government to stop separating parents and children at the border. At the time, the number of families seeking asylum was rising steadily, and Administration officials were determined to toughen enforcement. A D.H.S. official told me that, in the months before the operation was proposed, “a major focus” of department meetings “was concern about the fact that people on the non-detained docket”—asylum seekers released into the U.S. with a future court date—“are almost never deported.” By January, a tentative plan had materialized. The Department of Justice developed a “rocket docket” to prioritize the cases of asylum seekers who’d just arrived in the country and missed a court date—in their absence, the government could swiftly secure deportation orders against them. D.H.S. then created a “target list” of roughly twenty-five hundred immigrant family members across the country for deportation; eventually, the Administration aimed to arrest ten thousand people using these methods.
From the start, however, the plan faced resistance. The Secretary of D.H.S., Kirstjen Nielsen, argued that the arrests would be complicated to carry out, in part because American children would be involved. (Many were born in the U.S. to parents on the “target list.”) Resources were already limited, and an operation on this scale would divert attention from the border, where a humanitarian crisis was worsening by the day. The acting head of ice, Ron Vitiello, a tough-minded former Border Patrol officer, shared Nielsen’s concerns. According to the Washington Post, these reservations weren’t “ethical” so much as logistical: executing such a vast operation would be extremely difficult, with multiple moving pieces, and the optics could be devastating. Four months later, Trump effectively fired them. Vitiello’s replacement at ice, an official named Mark Morgan—who’s already been fired once by Trump and regained the President’s support after making a series of appearances on Fox News—subsequently announced that ice would proceed with the operation.
Late last week, factions within the Administration clashed over what to do. The acting secretary of D.H.S., Kevin McAleenan, urged caution, claiming that the operation was a distraction and a waste of manpower. Among other things, a $4.5 billion funding bill to supply further humanitarian aid at the border has been held up because Democrats worried that the Administration would use the money for enforcement operations. McAleenan had been meeting with members of both parties on the Hill, and there appeared to be signs of progress, before the President announced the ice crackdown. According to an Administration official, McAleenan argued that the operation would also threaten a string of recent gains made by the President. The Trump Administration had just secured a deal with the Mexican government to increase enforcement at the Guatemalan border, and it expanded a massive new program called Remain in Mexico, which has forced some ten thousand asylum seekers to wait indefinitely in northern Mexico. “Momentum was moving in the right direction,” the official said.
On the other side of the argument were Stephen Miller, at the White House, and Mark Morgan, at ice. In the days before and after Trump’s Twitter announcement, Morgan spoke regularly with the President, who was circumventing McAleenan, Morgan’s boss. In meetings with staff, Morgan boasted that he had a direct line to the President, according to the ice officer, who told me it was highly unusual for there to be such direct contact between the agency head and the White House. “It should be going to the Secretary, which I find hilarious, actually, because Morgan was already fired once by this Administration,” the officer said.
Over the weekend, the President agreed to halt the operation. But it’s far from certain whether McAleenan actually got the upper hand. Officials in the White House authorized ice to issue a press release insinuating that someone had leaked important details about the operation and therefore compromised it. “Any leak telegraphing sensitive law-enforcement operations is egregious and puts our officers’ safety in danger,” an ice spokesperson said late Saturday afternoon. This was a puzzling statement given that it was Trump who first publicized the information about the operation. But the White House’s line followed a different script: some members of the Administration, as well as the former head of ice, Thomas Homan, were publicly accusing McAleenan of sharing information with reporters in an attempt to undermine the operation.
For Homan, his involvement in the Administration’s internal fight marked an unexpected return to the main stage. Last year, he resigned as acting head of ice after the Senate refused to confirm him to the post. Earlier this month, Trump announced, on Fox News, that Homan would be returning to the Administration as the President’s new border tsar, but Homan, who hadn’t been informed of the decision, has remained noncommittal. Still, according to the Administration official, Homan and the President talk by phone regularly. Over the weekend, Homan, who has since become an on-air contributor to Fox News, appeared on television to attack McAleenan personally. “You’ve got the acting Secretary of Homeland Security resisting what ice is trying to do,” he said.
Meanwhile, the President spent the weekend trying to leverage the delayed operation to pressure congressional Democrats. If they did not agree to a complete overhaul of the asylum system at the border, Trump said, he’d greenlight the ice operation once more. “Two weeks,” he tweeted, “and big Deportation begins.” At the same time, his Administration was under fire for holding immigrant children at a Border Patrol facility in Clint, Texas. Two hundred and fifty infants, children, and teen-agers have spent weeks in squalid conditions; they have been denied food, water, soap, and toothbrushes, and there’s limited access to medicine in the wake of flu and lice outbreaks. “If the Democrats would change the asylum laws and the loopholes,” Trump said, “everything would be solved immediately.” And yet, last week, when an Administration lawyer appeared before the Ninth Circuit to answer for the conditions at the facility, which were in clear violation of a federal agreement on the treatment of children in detention, she said that addressing them was not the government’s responsibility. Michelle Brané, of the Women’s Refugee Commission, told me, “The Administration is intentionally creating chaos at the border and detaining children in abusive conditions for political gain.” (On Monday, Customs and Border Protection transferred all but thirty children from the Clint facility; it isn’t yet clear where, exactly, they’ll go.)
President Obama was never popular among ice’s rank and file, but the detailed list of enforcement priorities he instituted, in 2014, which many in the agency initially resented as micromanagement, now seemed more sensible—and even preferable to the current state of affairs. The ice officer said, “One person told me, ‘I never thought I’d say this, but I miss the Obama rules. We removed more people with the rules we had in place than with all this. It was much easier when we had the priorities. It was cleaner.’ ” Since the creation of ice, in 2003, enforcement was premised on the idea that officers would primarily go after criminals for deportation; Trump, who views ice as a political tool to showcase his toughness, has abandoned that framework entirely. “I don’t even know what we’re doing now,” the officer said. “A lot of us see the photos of the kids at the border, and we’re wondering, ‘What the hell is going on?’ ” The influx of Central American migrants, the officer noted, has been an issue for more than a decade now, spanning three Presidential administrations. “No one built up the infrastructure to handle this, and now people are suffering at the border for it. They keep saying they were caught flat footed. That’s a bald-faced fucking lie.”
The Trump administration will hire conservative firebrand and former Virginia attorney general Ken Cuccinelli II to coordinate immigration policy at the Department of Homeland Security, three administration officials said Tuesday.
Cuccinelli will work at DHS in a senior role and will report to acting DHS secretary Kevin McAleenan, while also providing regular briefings to President Trump at the White House, according two officials briefed on the appointment.
.. Cuccinelli, who has been hawkish on immigration policy during television appearances that also praise Trump, appears to fulfill the president’s desire to have a forceful personality and a loyalist at the highest levels of DHS. But his arrival risks new instability at the agency, coming six weeks after Trump ousted Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and replaced her with McAleenan, a long-serving official who was confirmed by the Senate last year as commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and who is one of the few administration figures who retains a favorable reputation with lawmakers from both parties.
Mark Krikorian, director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington think tank whose immigration-reduction agenda has had significant influence in the White House, called Cuccinelli “an unusual choice.”
“He doesn’t have any immigration experience, but he does have law enforcement experience,” said Krikorian, who said he was “cautiously optimistic” that the appointment would make a difference. The crucial factor, he predicted, would be access to the White House.
“If he does not answer directly to the president, he’s not likely to be able to get much done,” he said.
.. The White House offered the job to Cuccinelli after it was turned down by Tom Homan, the former acting director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, according to two officials. Trump also soured weeks ago on Kris Kobach, the Kansas Republican favored by immigration restrictionist groups, according to one senior administration official.
.. “It is bad news for [McAleenan],” said one senior administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to provide candid views. “You have someone at the agency that the White House might have in mind to be the next DHS secretary.”
Another former department official predicted Cuccinelli’s lack of authority at the agency and distance from the White House would leave him in a weak position from the outset.
“Putting an immigration czar at DHS is a total waste,” the person said.
The Department of Homeland Security did not respond to inquiries about Cuccinelli’s role. Cuccinelli, who was at the White House on Monday, could not be reached for comment. His expected hiring was first reported by the New York Times.
If the White House is grooming him as a possible replacement for McAleenan, he would face a difficult path to confirmation.
Cuccinelli is deeply disliked by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who has vowed to block Cuccinelli from any Senate-confirmed post for leading efforts in 2014 backing insurgent candidates that hurt the Senate GOP majority, McConnell advisers said.
Two years ago, Cuccinelli signed a letter drafted by GOP activists calling on McConnell to step down.
When Cuccinelli’s name surfaced last month as a potential Nielsen replacement, McConnell told reporters he’d conveyed his unease to the White House. “I have expressed my, shall I say, lack of enthusiasm for one of them . . . Ken Cuccinelli,” McConnell said.
The Virginia conservative, who has a long record of combative television appearances, is even less popular with Democrats. “This is absurd and outrageous,” Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) wrote on Twitter. “He doesn’t deserve a taxpayer-funded salary.”
Others more supportive of the move noted that the DHS secretary’s role is challenging enough when there isn’t a migration crisis — and with hurricane season approaching, McAleenan could benefit from a strong personality fully devoted to the border.
In April, more than 100,000 migrants were taken into custody along the U.S.-Mexico border for the second consecutive month, and the numbers in May are on pace to go even higher. McAleenan warned in late March that U.S. agents and infrastructure at the border had hit a “breaking point,” and since then the situation has worsened, leaving holding cells so overcrowded that DHS officials have been transferring migrants out of South Texas by aircraft simply to make room for ever-growing numbers of new arrivals.
Cuccinelli has been a vocal advocate for Trump’s proposed border wall and other measures popular with hard-liners. He has backed constitutional changes to restrict birthright citizenship, urged lawsuits against employers who hire undocumented immigrants and at one point supported denying immigrant workers — including those in the country lawfully — from collecting unemployment benefits if they are fired for not speaking English on the job.
His appointment to DHS has others in the administration worried there will be too many players fighting to establish control over an immigration agenda, with White House adviser Stephen Miller already chafing officials at DHS.
.. One White House adviser said Cuccinelli would advocate for the White House’s aggressive position at the agency. Miller has argued to Trump that others within DHS are trying to stall him.
McAleenan last week pushed back at an attempt by Miller to have Trump’s pick to lead ICE installed at CBP instead. In a tense White House meeting Thursday, McAleenan said he needed control over DHS to remain in his job, administration officials said.
The animus between Cuccinelli and Senate Republicans stems from his leadership of the Senate Conservatives Fund, which organized anti-incumbent efforts, and from his role at the 2016 Republican convention, when he derided “petty, tyrannical rules” and threw his ID badge on the floor in protest of Trump’s nomination. He was a strong supporter of the presidential bid by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), who has since become one of Trump’s most ardent defenders.
Another senior administration official who welcomed the appointment said there was an acute need for someone to be an immigration policy field marshal.
.. “The president’s frustration is not directed at DHS alone,” the official said. “It’s DOJ, DOD, State. So this job will ensure closer coordination at a senior level, and it’s an effort to acknowledge you need someone who can have conversations with department heads about policies and drive them to the same place.”
But the official also acknowledged that Cuccinelli’s appointment risked undercutting McAleenan at a time when the acting secretary has been making inroads with lawmakers, including Democrats who see him as a neutral law enforcement official rather than a White House political operative.
“I don’t see how this appointment makes things better on the Hill,” the official said.
Five of the nation’s 10 largest federal law-enforcement agencies are currently operating with only interim heads amid an unprecedented long-term leadership vacuum that even some of the president’s congressional allies say is untenable.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and the Federal Bureau of Prisons all lack permanent heads.
Several of the agencies—ATF, DEA and ICE—have been without Senate-approved leadership for the entirety of Donald Trump’s term in office. That is the case despite unified Republican control of the Senate and presidency during that period, which typically leads to easier confirmation scenarios.
Because of opposition by some gun-rights groups, presidents of both parties have struggled to get ATF nominees through the Senate—but Mr. Trump has never even tapped anyone for the job. The leader of the Bureau of Prisons need not be Senate-confirmed, but even so it has only an acting director.
CBP has been run by an interim leader since mid-April because its current commissioner was tapped to run the entire Department of Homeland Security—as an acting secretary.
In part, the situation reflects Mr. Trump’s management style. He has said he prefers keeping people in “acting” roles rather than going through the Senate nominating process.
“I sort of like ‘acting,’” Mr. Trump said earlier this year. “It gives me more flexibility.”
He is giving himself plenty of that. While vacancies are common toward the end of a presidential administration, the sheer number of them across the Trump administration as well as the turnover in crucial jobs, particularly at prestigious law-enforcement agencies, is without precedent, according to Max Stier, president and chief executive of the Partnership for Public Service.
Of the roughly 700 key positions requiring Senate approval that his organization tracks, only about 400 of them have been filled with a Senate-confirmed official. Some are extremely high profile, like the secretaries of defense and DHS.
But the result is a lack of leadership stability at several agencies that enforce critical parts of Mr. Trump’s agenda. The Drug Enforcement Administration has a prominent role in curbing opioid abuse, a priority of the Trump administration. ATF is a central player in combating gang violence and illegal firearms trafficking, other law-enforcement priorities of the president.
And CBP and ICE both play major roles in enforcing immigration law, the centerpiece of Mr. Trump’s domestic agenda. The president often talks of what he says is a “crisis at the border.”
Steadiness in leadership at government agencies with police powers may be especially crucial. “A law-enforcement organization is dealing with some of the most serious powers of the state and that is the power that involves people’s liberty,” said Mr. Stier.
“One of the purposes of the constitutional system we have is the checks and balances. The Senate, one of their critical roles, is to be able to in essence vet the senior leadership of our government—choices that the president is making,” Mr. Stier said. “That absolutely is a challenge to the system of government that we have.”
Veterans of government service note that it is difficult to be an effective manager with “acting” in your title.
“To effectively lead an agency, you need as much authority and gravitas as you can muster. These are difficult jobs. Senate confirmation definitely helps,” said Robert Bonner, a former federal judge and prosecutor who was successfully nominated to lead both the DEA and U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency under two Republican presidents.
The lack of any nominees has created a messy situation at the top of several agencies—requiring tricky legal maneuvering to even name an acting successor.
ATF is currently being led by Reggie Lombardo, who holds the title of “acting deputy director.” Ms. Lombardo, who took office earlier this month after the departure of her predecessor, cannot hold the title of acting director because of a quirk in federal law caused by the lengthy vacancy and the lack of a nominee.
The current acting head of the DEA, Uttam Dhillon, had to be transferred from his White House job into a Justice Department post first—to qualify for the appointment as acting administrator because of another requirement in the agency secession rules. Mr. Dhillon was involved in the search for a DEA head while he was at the White House.
And Mr. Trump purged the leadership of the Department of Homeland Security last month in a clash over the direction of the agency. He named CBP commissioner Kevin McAleenan as the acting DHS secretary—bypassing a law that required the acting job to go to the undersecretary for Management, Claire Grady. Ms. Grady eventually resigned to resolve the issue—clearing the path for Mr. McAleenan to become acting DHS secretary.