The White House personnel office chief has told President Trump that his top two picks to fill the Homeland Security secretary job aren’t eligible under a federal law dictating who can fill the role without Senate confirmation, said people familiar with the matter.
During a meeting Friday at the White House, Sean Doocey, head of the White House Presidential Personnel Office, informed the president that neither Ken Cuccinelli nor Mark Morgan, who head two prominent immigration agencies at the Department of Homeland Security, were legally eligible to lead the agency on an acting basis.
Mr. Trump and many of his top immigration advisers favored Messrs. Cuccinelli and Morgan, who have worked at DHS for only the past few months but who are ardent defenders of the president’s immigration policies on television. The previous acting secretary, Kevin McAleenan, recently submitted his resignation but will remain on the job through the end of the month.
The two men were installed in the spring after the White House pushed out several officials, including former DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, whom they felt were standing in the way of tougher immigration enforcement.
Mr. Cuccinelli heads the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency overseeing legal immigration and asylum applications. Mr. Morgan leads Customs and Border Protection. Each is serving on an acting basis, and neither has been nominated by Mr. Trump for permanent roles, which would require Senate confirmation.
Although popular with conservative immigration activists, Mr. Cuccinelli in particular isn’t a likely candidate to lead the department permanently. He made powerful enemies in the Senate, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.), when he ran the Senate Conservatives Fund, an outside group that challenged incumbent Republicans. Mr. McConnell has said his nomination would inspire a “lack of enthusiasm.”
The federal statute that governs vacancies states that acting officials in cabinet-level positions must either be next in line for a position or hold a Senate-confirmed post. Under a third option, the official being elevated must have served for at least 90 days in the past year under the previous secretary.
During the meeting Friday, Mr. Doocey briefed Mr. Trump on an opinion from the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel that the past secretary was Ms. Nielsen, not Mr. McAleenan, the people familiar with the matter said. Under that interpretation, Messrs. Cuccinelli and Morgan wouldn’t qualify, as they joined the agency after Ms. Nielsen departed.
The meeting with Mr. Trump on Friday included Stephen Miller, a top adviser to the president, and Emma Doyle, deputy chief of staff, the people said.
An administration official said Mr. Trump hoped to announce the next acting DHS secretary in the next few days. Another White House official said the administration doesn’t intend for that person to serve for as long as Mr. McAleenan did.
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The White House didn’t respond to a request for comment.
White House officials are instead considering Chad Wolf, Ms. Nielsen’s former chief of staff, as acting secretary, administration officials said, a move backed by Mr. Miller. In February, Mr. Wolf was nominated to serve as the department’s undersecretary for policy.
The White House is also considering David Pekoske, the Transportation Security Administration head who is serving as acting deputy DHS secretary, and Chris Krebs, head of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, according to administration officials. Mr. Pekoske has already indicated to DHS colleagues that he doesn’t want the top job, though, and would prefer to return to the TSA full-time, according to a person familiar with the matter.
As Mr. Wolf’s possible appointment began to circulate on Monday, it drew public criticism from outside groups pushing a more restrictive immigration policy.
RJ Hauman, government relations director at the Federation for American Immigration Reform, pointed to Mr. Wolf’s past work for the National Association of Software and Services Companies, which lobbies for the U.S. government to issue more green cards to foreign workers each year. Advocates also said Mr. Wolf’s close relationship with Ms. Nielsen meant he likely wouldn’t steer the department in a more hard-line direction.
A senior DHS official said the criticism of Mr. Wolf is unfounded, as he supported many of the administration’s recent immigration policy goals, including implementing asylum agreements with three Latin American countries.
“If he was selected as acting, he would easily be able to pick up the ball on day one and carry on with the president’s priorities,” the official said.
The legal ineligibility of Messrs. Morgan and Cuccinelli for the acting DHS post isn’t likely to have a big impact on Mr. Trump’s immigration agenda. The two men will continue at their respective agencies, where they have been given wide latitude to set policy and shape the administration’s immigration messaging—sometimes to the chagrin of Mr. McAleenan, the department’s top official.
A White House official said that if the next secretary formally nominated to lead the department doesn’t have a strong immigration background, the president may revive an idea to appoint a “border czar” to oversee the Department’s immigration policy and enforcement. That position wouldn’t require Senate confirmation.
Kirstjen Nielsen is the latest one out of the president’s spiraling cabinet who expressed his cruelty but wouldn’t go as far as he wanted.
There’s no reason to mourn Kirstjen Nielsen’s departure from the Department of Homeland Security. She was an immigration hard-liner working aggressively to carry out President Trump’s restrictionist agenda. She spearheaded efforts to crack down on migrants and asylum seekers. She requested military assistance at the border. She limited the number of people who can legally present for asylum at ports of entry. And she vastly increased the number of immigrants in detention.
She also carried out the president’s “zero tolerance” policy, resulting in the separation of thousands of families at our border with Mexico. Many parents are still searching for their children.
But there were limits to Nielsen’s embrace of Trump’s immigration policies. She pushed back on his demands to break the law to stop migrants from entering the country, according to The Times, and repeatedly reminded the president of “the limitations imposed on her department by federal laws, court settlements and international obligations.”
In almost any other administration, this would be unremarkable. It simply means Nielsen took her job and its legal obligations seriously — what we would expect from any civil servant. But Trump is unusual among modern presidents for his routine elevation of people who lack that basic sense of public ethics. If regular pressure to break the law was part of Nielsen’s decision to leave the administration, then her departure illustrates how any belief in the public good, no matter how slight, is incompatible with working for this president, even if you share his views.
This was evident from previous resignations and firings. Rex Tillerson, Trump’s first secretary of state, seemed to share the president’s skepticism of the department, carrying out an agenda meant to shrink its influence. But when Trump wanted to break the law — which, Tillerson said in an interview after leaving the administration, was “often” — Tillerson would push back, unwilling to completely subordinate himself to the president’s will. “I would have to say to him, ‘Mr. President, I understand what you want to do, but you can’t do it that way. It violates the law.’”
The president’s first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, faced similar pressures after he recused himself from any investigations related to the prospect of Russian interference with the 2016 presidential election. Sessions took that step after The Washington Post revealed his meetings with the Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, during the campaign — the kind of contact he had denied during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Trump was furious, which grew into rage after the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, appointed Robert Mueller special counsel. Trump reportedly berated Sessions in the Oval Office — which the attorney general called his “most humiliating experience in decades of public life” — and complained that the recusal was “unfair.”
Trump wanted Sessions to derail the Russia investigation and protect him from scrutiny, essentially making himself above the law. And he spent much of 2018 pressuring the attorney general to do just that, either attacking him in public or cajoling him in private. Sessions, who shared Trump’s politics but not his complete contempt for the rule of law, wouldn’t budge.
The overall pattern is clear. Trump wants to act with impunity, breaking the law if he needs or even just wants to. His appointees, who share his goals but not his methods, resist. He scolds and attacks them until they resign, replacing them with loyalists who may actually bend to his will.
Rex Tillerson was replaced by Mike Pompeo, then serving as director of the C.I.A. Unlike Tillerson, who attempted to contain Trump’s worst instincts, Pompeo has been willing to say or do nearly anything to stay in Trump’s favor. It’s why he would echo the president’s widely criticized flattery of Kim Jong-un and the North Korean government.
Trump says that Kevin McAleenan, until now the commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, will take over for Nielsen as acting secretary of Homeland Security. Like Nielsen, McAleenan backs the president’s harsh border policies. He defended border patrol agents after they used tear gas on hundreds of migrants, including women and children, who tried to enter the United States near Tijuana, Mexico. Some attorneys say it’s unclear if Trump can elevate McAleenan, since the laws regarding succession point to under secretary for management Claire Grady as next-in-line as acting director.
President Trump’s removal of John Kelly as his top aide is part of a rolling staff makeover that could soon result in the departure of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, White House officials and people close to the administration said... When Mr. Trump and National Security Adviser John Bolton faulted her for not taking sufficiently bold steps to shore up the border, Mr. Kelly would defend Ms. Nielsen’s performance... With Mr. Kelly on his way out, Ms. Nielsen is increasingly vulnerable. and department officials are bracing for a change, past and present administration officials said. “People there are waiting for the guillotine,”A current department official said Ms. Nielsen wouldn’t resign, leaving it to the president to fire her. “She loves this,” the official said. “They’d have to drag her out of here.”.. Having failed to lock in Mr. Ayers, Mr. Trump quizzed some of his advisers about potential candidates, people familiar with the conversations said. One person recommended Matthew Whitaker, now the acting attorney general. Mr. Trump said in reply that he liked Mr. Whitaker, who White House officials said is a viable candidate if not a favorite for the job... Another candidate is Energy Secretary Rick Perry, a former Texas governor, people close to the White House said. Over the weekend, a White House official said Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin wasn’t in the running. But another White House official said Tuesday Mr. Mnuchin is being discussed internally as a potential candidate. His preference is to remain Treasury secretary, a person familiar with his thinking said... Another corner of the White House that is in the midst of an overhaul is the White House counsel’s office, which has been hollowed out since the departure of Donald McGahn in October. The counsel’s office will be on the front lines of skirmishes with the new Democratic House majority
President says White House ‘is running very smoothly’ despite staffing shake-ups
President Trump asserted on Thursday that Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election is in complete disarray and a “disgrace to our Nation,” while adding that his White House is operating smoothly as news emerges of high level shake-ups.
In a series of tweets early Thursday, the president said “The inner workings of the Mueller investigation are a total mess.”
“They have found no collusion and have gone absolutely nuts. They are screaming and shouting at people, horribly threatening them to come up with the answers they want. They are a disgrace to our Nation and don’t…care how many lives the ruin.”
It wasn’t immediately clear how Mr. Trump came to these conclusions about the Mueller probe’s inner workings. The White House and Mr. Trump’s outside counsel didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
.. Mr. Trump also described officials with the special counsel’s team as “Angry People” and described Mr. Mueller himself as “highly conflicted,” saying that he served under President Obama’s administration for eight years.
.. Mr. Trump and his lawyers are in the process of developing responses to written questions provided by Mr. Mueller’s investigators on the subject of collusion, according to a person familiar with the matter. The lawyers are expected to submit the responses by the end of the week.
After those questions are submitted, the president’s legal team has said it will discuss with the special counsel whether he still wants a sit-down interview with Mr. Trump. “I’d have to say…the lawyers are against it,” Rudy Giuliani, one of Mr. Trump’s attorneys, said in an interview last week.
.. “The White House is running very smoothly and the results for our Nation are obviously very good. We are the envy of the world,” he said. “But anytime I even think about making changes, the FAKE NEWS MEDIA goes crazy, always seeking to make us look as bad as possible! Very dishonest!”
On Wednesday, Mr. Trump removed his deputy national security adviser Mira Ricardel, moving to quickly resolve an unusual feud pitting first lady Melania Trump against her husband’s National Security Council.
Ms. Ricardel lost Mrs. Trump’s support after a dispute involving the first lady’s trip to Africa last month, according to current and former administration officials. Aides to the two women clashed over whether the first lady’s plane would have seats for National Security Council staff, and relations deteriorated after that, these people said.
Advisers to the president described turbulence inside the White House in recent days, with aides jockeying for new positions left by officials who are departing or expected to depart.
Ms. Ricardel’s abrupt departure came amid a broader shake-up that could see the exit of chief of staff John Kelly and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen.