President Trump is facing a time and personnel crunch in his search for a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) secretary who is both qualified to be appointed to the role and willing to carry out the president’s hard-line immigration agenda.
The president has cycled through four permanent or acting secretaries in less than three years and must now pick a fourth after announcing earlier this month that acting Secretary Kevin McAleenan will resign.
Officials inside the Trump administration and allies outside of it have expressed frustration with the president’s inability to make a choice and worry that time is running out to get the right person installed.
The president’s reliance on acting officials, particularly in the ranks of DHS, has further complicated matters, leaving him few options to take over for McAleenan without skirting the law that governs federal vacancies.
“It’s remarkable that this is now three years into Trump’s term and he’s had one DHS secretary after another who didn’t agree with his take on the issue, and this is his most important issue,” said Mark Kirkorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates for restricting immigration.
“This latest tug of war over who’s going to be acting secretary is not so much a matter of policy differences between different factions in the White House, but it’s also just a practical matter of who can be appointed,” he added.
Trump tweeted Oct. 11 that McAleenan would step down from his post. The president said in a tweet that he would reveal his replacement the following week, but no pick has been announced.
The White House did not respond to questions about the timing of the announcement or when McAleenan’s last day is, but the search for a new department head may be stalled by a lack of viable options.
Trump often says he prefers leaving officials in an acting capacity because it gives him flexibility. But that preference has left the president boxed in when searching for a new DHS secretary because of the Federal Vacancies Act, which stipulates that the secretary position must be filled by an official confirmed by the Senate.
There is no Senate confirmed deputy secretary, and the leaders of Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Customs and Border Protection (CBP), U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) are all acting.
Acting USCIS Director Ken Cuccinelli and acting CBP Commissioner Mark Morgan were widely viewed as the top contenders for the DHS role, as they have been the public faces of the Trump administration’s immigration agenda in recent months.
Morgan has made multiple appearances in the White House briefing room in recent months to tout the decline in apprehensions at the southern border, and he joined Trump on a recent trip to tour a completed section of fencing.
Cuccinelli has similarly used his role to announce a series of executive measures meant to roll back benefits for immigrants.
White House personnel director Sean Doocey earlier this month indicated to Trump that neither Morgan nor Cuccinelli would be eligible due to federal vacancy laws.
Experts have noted that the president could choose to ignore the Vacancies Act and appoint one of the two as acting DHS secretary, much like Cuccinelli was appointed to his role despite working outside the government at the time.
Democrats have grown dismissive of the rumors regarding Trump’s thinking on the issue, and most expect Cuccinelli to get the job despite the questions on his eligibility.
Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Calif.), the chairwoman of the House Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee, said she’s focusing on oversight in her dealings with the department under Trump.
“As I’ve told every, every acting secretary, the one thing that is not acceptable and is totally inexcusable is the treatment of the immigrants. That has nothing to do with policy, that has nothing [to do with] trying to protect our borders. This is about treating human beings with respect,” said Roybal-Allard.
At least one eligible candidate, Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) chief David Pekoske, has ruled out taking the acting secretary job.
Other names being considered for the role include Chad Wolf, an undersecretary for the agency, and Chris Krebs, director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency branch of DHS.
People familiar with discussions also said Ambassador to Mexico Chris Landau’s name has been kicked around, though it’s unclear how serious those considerations have been. The State Department referred questions about Landau to the White House, which did not respond to a request for comment.
Groups favoring new restrictions on immigration that support the president’s policies panned Wolf, citing his past work as a lobbyist. Those organizations have favored former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach and Cuccinelli, two individuals with hard-line immigration views and slim hopes of winning Senate confirmation for the full-time role.
Cuccinelli has the added downside that Republicans in the Senate are unlikely to confirm him if he’s formally nominated to the position, as he helped fund a primary opponent against Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in 2014.
With the 2020 election fast approaching and the Senate likely to be consumed by an impeachment trial in the coming months, there is a sense that McAleenan’s replacement represents a last chance for the foreseeable future for Trump to get the right person in place to implement his immigration agenda.
“It is very frustrating, and I think a lot more could have been done faster had the people at the top shared his agenda and been willing to really stand up and take charge,” said Rosemary Jenks, director of government relations for NumbersUSA.
Trump’s first DHS chief, John Kelly, spoke dismissively of Trump’s long-desired border wall during his tenure as White House chief of staff. Kelly told Fox News in a 2018 interview that Trump was not “fully informed” on the topic, and later said as he left the White House that the administration abandoned the idea of a concrete wall long ago.
Kelly’s replacement, Kirstjen Nielsen, said at a recent Fortune Magazine event that she quit earlier this year because she felt it was not enough for her to refuse to implement policies that violated the law.
McAleenan was accused by some of the president’s allies of leaking information about widespread ICE raids that led to the operation being canceled, a charge he denied. But shortly before leaving, McAleenan told The Washington Post he felt he did not control the department’s tone and messaging, an implied criticism of some of the president’s more hard-line surrogates.
Trump has turned DHS into a de facto immigration enforcement agency tasked with carrying out his most high-profile campaign pledges, including building the wall and curbing the number of migrants entering the country.
But career officials worry that singular focus is coming at the expense of other critical functions of DHS, such as cybersecurity, counterterrorism and emergency management.
David Lapan, a former spokesman for DHS during the Trump administration, said Trump’s emphasis on immigration limits the candidate pool for the secretary job to those with a background in immigration enforcement and could make it difficult for any qualified individual to last in the role.
“Because of the president’s outsize focus on the southwest border, it seems that the measure of success for him in a secretary or an acting secretary is affecting the number of people who show up at our southwest border,” Lapan said. “And with that as a metric it’s an impossible job.”