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.
Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, was confident in his ability as a good-faith negotiator who could find a compromise to end the government shutdown.
His pitch to Democratic lawmakers was simple: He told them he was the person who could “land this plane.”
Buoyed by his success in helping pass a criminal justice bill, Mr. Kushner, a senior White House adviser, agreed to take the lead when the president asked him to find a way to end the monthlong stalemate. He hoped his experience winning over Democrats skeptical of the Trump administration during negotiations for that measure would produce a similarly successful conclusion.
But negotiating a broad immigration deal that would satisfy a president committed to a border wall as well as Democrats who have cast it as immoral proved to be more like Mr. Kushner’s elusive goal of solving Middle East peace than passing a criminal justice overhaul that already had bipartisan support.
For one, Mr. Kushner inaccurately believed that moderate rank-and-file Democrats were open to a compromise and had no issue funding a wall as part of a broader deal.
“If Jared Kushner thinks there is any daylight between House Democratic leadership and rank-and-file members on this issue, then the extent that he lands this plane it will land in the Alamo,” said Representative Hakeem Jeffries, Democrat of New York.
And Democratic leaders like Senator Chuck Schumer, party officials said, did not believe that Mr. Kushner had the power to circumvent Stephen Miller, a senior policy adviser to the president. In meetings, they also noticed, Mr. Kushner appeared to prop up Mr. Miller as an expert on immigration, noting that Mr. Miller’s reputation as a hard-liner was out of sync with his reasonable nature.
On Friday, President Trump did what Mr. Kushner had privately insisted was not an option on the table: He folded.
The country is yawning as Washington wrangles over another possible government shutdown this weekend, and no wonder. The fight is over a difference of merely $3.4 billion in funding for border security. If Donald Trump really wants a political fight worth having, and a chance to retrieve his public standing, he’d go much bigger and offer legalization for the Dreamers in return for his money.
At this late stage such a trade isn’t likely. Republicans who lost in November want to get out of town, and Democrats figure they’ll be in a stronger position in January when they run the House. We are left with one of those shutdown spectacles in which the rhetoric is so bitter because the stakes are so small.
.. Another possibility is to pass a continuing resolution through the new year and delay the fight until the next Congress convenes. The gambit is that the politics will be cleaner for Republicans when they can blame Democrats who will then be running the House. Yet President Trump is even less likely to prevail on border funding next year without making even larger concessions.
All of which is a reminder of Mr. Trump’s immigration lost opportunity. With his restrictionist campaign credentials, he was perfectly positioned to strike a deal that settled at least some of our immigration dilemmas.
He had leverage with Democrats on the Dreamers
.. The GOP “compromise” bill in June had $23 billion for border security, but it lost in a rout when Mr. Trump offered only diffident support. Mr. Trump was given bad advice by White House aide Stephen Miller and cable-TV scolds that immigration would be the GOP’s killer issue in the fall.
It killed Republicans all right. The summer brought the family separation fiasco, and no amount of last-minute campaign hype about the caravan from Central America could save Republicans in the suburbs. As Minnesota Rep. Erik Paulsen told us early last year, an immigration deal would have given him another accomplishment to tout and removed a vote-mobilizer for Democrats. Mr. Paulsen was among the 30 or so House GOP incumbents who lost...If Democrats aren’t willing to offer more border security in exchange for a deal on the Dreamers, something the party has made a signature issue, then that will expose the left’s political cynicism.
.. Mr. Trump is in far more re-election trouble than he realizes. He has alienated suburban Republicans with the crude way he behaves, and the many legal and political investigations won’t stop until he has left office, if then. He needs to change voter perceptions. A deal on immigration would show he can solve problems that other Presidents couldn’t.
The outgoing attorney general did more to enact the president’s priorities than any other member of the Cabinet, but that didn’t save him from White House hostility.
The paradox of Jeff Sessions’s tenure as attorney general is that no member of the Trump administration was so beleaguered and disparaged by President Trump, but no member got as much done.Even as he endured persistent verbal abuse from the president, Sessions steamed forward on a range of conservative social-policy priorities, aggressively reorienting the Justice Department’s stances on immigration, civil rights, and criminal justice, among other issues. In an administration plagued by incompetent and ineffective figures, Sessions was a paragon of efficacy—a distinction that horrified his many opponents, but did nothing to win Trump’s trust or affection.
- When it came time for Trump to pull the plug on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, as he had promised he would during the 2016 campaign, the president got cold feet, but Sessions was happy to be the public face of the withdrawal. It was Sessions who
- tried to follow through (unsuccessfully) on Trump’s threat to cut off funding to sanctuary cities. It was Sessions who issued new guidance to immigration judges. And, most prominent, it was Sessions who
- went to the border to announce the Trump administration’s decision to separate migrant children from their parents.
Sessions openly said the plan to split families up was intended to deter migrants, even as other administration officials said otherwise. The policy was met with widespread and appropriate horror, and Trump eventually pulled back—but he had backed the plan before that, and Sessions had followed through... But these weren’t just Sessions’s pet issues. They were Trump’s as well. Hardline immigration policies, giving police free rein, fighting phantom voter fraud—these were all signature Trump projects. Sessions had been the first U.S. senator to endorse Trump, and Trump took from him a range of policy concepts—especially on immigration—as well as a top adviser, Stephen Miller. But Sessions’s stewardship of those projects didn’t return him to favor with Trump, who, according to Bob Woodward’s book Fear, called Sessions “mentally retarded” and a “dumb Southerner.”.. When McGahn’s departure was announced in August, I wrote that he’d been the most effective person in the West Wing, through his stewardship of judicial appointments. But Trump disliked and distrusted McGahn, and seemed eager to have him gone... Of course, the same issue poisoned both Sessions’s and McGahn’s relationships with Trump: the Russia investigation, and especially Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s takeover of it... Trump was angry that neither man had protected him. He raged at Sessions’s lack of “loyalty” and complained that Attorney General Eric Holder had “totally protected” Barack Obama. (What he meant by that is unclear.) He twice instructed McGahn to fire Mueller, and McGahn twice refused, once threatening to resign... Attorney General Matthew Whitaker assumes control of Mueller’s probe. Whitaker was outspokenly critical of the special counsel’s inquiry before joining the administration, so Trump may now have a leader of the Justice Department who is more pliable on the Mueller front. But the president is unlikely to find an attorney general who will do as much to move his priorities forward as Sessions did—and the new attorney general will come into the job knowing that loyalty and efficacy aren’t enough to garner favor with Trump.