In shake-up, Trump seeks team to support his desire for a hard line on immigration
WASHINGTON – President Trump moved to clear out the senior ranks of the Department of Homeland Security on Monday, a day after forcing the resignation of its secretary, Kirstjen Nielsen, as he accelerated a purge of the nation’s immigration and security leadership.
The White House announced the departure of Randolph D. Alles, director of the Secret Service, who had fallen out of favor with the president even before a security breach at his Mar-a-Lago club in Florida that the agency effectively blamed on Trump’s employees.
Government officials, who asked not to be identified discussing personnel changes before they were announced, said at least two to four more high-ranking figures affiliated with Nielsen were expected to leave soon, too, hollowing out the top echelon of the department managing border security, presidential safety, counterterrorism, natural disasters, customs and other matters.
The wave of departures of officials originally appointed by Trump underscored his growing frustration with his own administration’s handling of immigration and other security issues. In recent days, Trump has threatened to close the southwestern border altogether only to back off and give Mexico a one-year notice in the face of warnings about deep economic damage from such a move.
The shake-up, coming more than two years into Trump’s term, indicated that he is still searching for a team that will fulfill his desire for an even tougher approach to immigration. It also signaled the enduring influence of Stephen Miller, the president’s hard-line senior adviser who has complained about recalcitrant homeland security officials.
Some of Trump’s allies complained that he was going too far, taking out subordinates who actually share his goals on immigration at the prodding of White House aides hunting for scapegoats for the failure to control the border as he has promised to do.
“Without names, there’s people in the White House that speak about immigration,” Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, said in an interview. “They haven’t accomplished a whole lot, so they need to find some other way to make themselves look important.”
The latest shuffle came just a day after Trump pushed out Nielsen for not doing enough in his view to secure the border and three days after Ronald D. Vitiello, acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, was told to step aside so the administration could go in a “tougher direction,” as Trump put it.
Officials said they expect to see the departures of L. Francis Cissna, head of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services; Kathy Nuebel Kovarik, one of his top deputies; and John Mitnick, the department’s general counsel and a senior member of Nielsen’s leadership team. All of them were said to be viewed by Miller as obstacles to implementing the president’s policies.
The White House is also pressing for the resignation of Claire Grady, the acting deputy secretary, who under law would normally fill in for Nielsen. Trump has already announced that he will install Kevin K. McAleenan, the Customs and Border Protection commissioner, as Nielsen’s acting replacement, which he cannot do if Grady remains in place.
The latest moves appeared to be a housecleaning of officials associated with John Kelly, the president’s former chief of staff and his first homeland security secretary, who was pushed out at the end of last year after months of tension with Trump.
Alles, a retired Marine major general who served with Kelly in the military and goes by Tex, was the first person from outside the Secret Service to head the agency in more than a century, and some administration officials said he had a hard time fitting in.
At Trump’s instruction, Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, told Alles at least 10 days ago to expect a transition after two years in office and to develop an exit plan, according to officials familiar with the discussions.
Trump, who talks with members of his own Secret Service detail, had soured on Alles a while ago, convinced that as an outsider he was not popular among the agents, officials said. Trump even made fun of the director’s looks, calling him Dumbo because of his ears. But a Secret Service ally of Alles disputed the notion that he did not fit in, saying that the director was well-liked among the workforce.
Alles was told to develop an exit plan before the arrest of a Chinese woman carrying a malware-laced device at Mar-a-Lago, exposing holes in the security of the private club.
The Secret Service was so disturbed that it issued a statement faulting the club’s staff for not tracking its guests closely enough.
Some Secret Service officials said Monday that they suspected that Alles’ departure was accelerated in part because of the episode.
The White House made no mention of that in its statement announcing Alles’ departure issued shortly after it was reported by CNN.
Alles “has done a great job at the agency over the last two years, and the president is thankful for his over 40 years of service to the country,” Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, said in the statement.
She said he would be replaced in May by James M. Murray, a career Secret Service official who oversees protective operations.
Alles was the focus of an early fight between Trump and Kelly in the first months of the administration. Kelly threatened to resign as homeland security secretary if Alles was not made Secret Service director, according to former administration officials. In an email message to his workforce, Alles confirmed that his departure was ordered by the president last month.
Regardless of when the decision was made, Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the Senate Democratic leader, said Alles should testify before Congress about the Mar-a-Lago breach.
“The public and Congress need to know the extent to which adversarial governments – like China – and their agents are attempting to gain access to, or conduct electronic surveillance on, conversations or other information regarding national security at President Trump’s properties,” he said.
Not all of Trump’s allies were happy with the moves. Several champions of more restrictions on immigration called the White House to complain about Cissna’s pending departure, arguing that he is on their side on the issues that matter to the president.
“There’s no doubt that Cissna has proved his competence, in a lot of things he’s doing – things that the president is for,” Grassley said. Referring to Cissna and Kovarik, both of whom once worked on his staff, Grassley said, “If he gets rid of these two, it’s self-defeating because I don’t know anyone else in the department or at least in immigration” who could do better.
One administration official said Cissna angered Miller by refusing to make changes to asylum policy without congressional approval. Under current law, immigrants in the country illegally and facing removal may seek asylum before an immigration judge if found to have a credible fear of persecution or torture.
As for Nielsen, she expressed no unhappiness about her departure and thanked Trump “for the tremendous opportunity” to serve her country and the employees of her department for their efforts to secure the nation.
The latest departures, along with previous vacancies, will leave the Department of Homeland without a permanent secretary, deputy secretary, two undersecretaries, Secret Service director, Federal Emergency Management Agency director, ICE director, general counsel, citizenship and immigration services director, inspector general, chief financial officer, chief privacy officer and, once McAleenan moves, Customs and Border Protection commissioner.
“The purge of senior leadership at the Department of Homeland Security is unprecedented and a threat to our national security,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.
President Trump moved to replace the top ranks of the Department of Homeland Security on Monday, a day after forcing the resignation of its secretary, Kirstjen Nielsen.