President Donald Trump. | Drew Angerer/Getty Images Key pieces of his agenda are stalled. Top aides are feuding. And there’s worry that the very issue that swept President Donald Trump into office in 2016 could help cost him his reelection in 2020. Nearly three years into office, Trump’s attempts to match the lofty campaign promises…
President Donald Trump. | Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Key pieces of his agenda are stalled. Top aides are feuding. And there’s worry that the very issue that swept President Donald Trump into office in 2016 could help cost him his reelection in 2020.
Nearly three years into office, Trump’s attempts to match the lofty campaign promises he made on immigration are in disarray — the wall remains largely unbuilt, so-called sanctuary cities are still receiving federal money and birthright citizenship remains intact. And over at the sprawling Department of Homeland Security, a bitter dispute recently erupted over who should head the agency tasked with enacting Trump’s immigration policies, leading some frustrated aides to plot ways to circumvent federal law and push for the leader of their choice.
“The reason there is such disarray at the leadership level of DHS is because there is disarray and disunity within the White House on the immigration issue generally,” said Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, who supports immigration restrictions.
The jumbled approach is not just affecting immigration policy. Throughout the Trump administration, the same themes are playing out — top officials with deep philosophical divides are sparring over what to do and temporary leaders are given little power to push through an agenda.
Trump, a businessman-turned-reality-TV star, had no experience in politics when he swept into office in 2017, promising to shake up the nation’s capital and push a hard line on immigration. His lack of connections to official Washington and bare-bones transition infrastructure forced Trump to quickly fill jobs across the federal government, hiring both loyalists and establishment Republicans.
“There are people who actually supported what he would do,” said a senior administration official who has worked on immigration, among other issues. “And there are Republicans who always support a president when a Republican is elected.”
These divisions are still playing out years later. They spilled into public last week when Trump tapped Chad Wolf to temporarily head DHS. Wolf has ties to ousted DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, an unpopular figure to immigration hard-liners, and once lobbied for an organization that aimed to maintain a foreign worker visa program that immigration hawks have fought to change. In 2016, Trump himself criticized the visas, calling it a “cheap labor” program.
The move angered some conservatives who had been lobbying for Ken Cuccinelli, an immigration hard-liner who is close to the president and, in recent weeks, had presented Trump with at least four possible executive actions on immigration, according to two people, including a top DHS official. Several people within the administration and in ideologically aligned groups expressed concern that Wolf would not be tough enough on immigration to satisfy Trump, arguing he would eventually be fired like his former boss.
Still, the Senate is expected to confirm Wolf to his current job — acting undersecretary of Homeland Security for Strategy, Policy and Plans — as soon as next week, allowing him to become acting secretary of the 240,000 employees who work at the nation’s third-largest federal agency. The White House has been speaking to reluctant GOP senators, including Mike Lee of Utah and Chuck Grassley of Iowa, to ensure they have the necessary votes, two other officials said.
Now, some immigration hawks are worried Trump will never nominate a permanent secretary, leaving Wolf as acting secretary. Or, worse yet, they fear Trump will eventually nominate Wolf to run the agency full time.
“Three things must happen to quell the base’s concerns,” said RJ Hauman, government relations director at the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which favors immigration restrictions.
“First, Wolf must recuse himself from all work on guest worker related issues” because of his past lobbying work, Hauman said. “Second, he needs to publicly commit to President Trump’s immigration agenda. Third, and perhaps most importantly, there must be an official nomination in the next week to show that Wolf’s tenure as acting secretary is just temporary.”
A senior DHS official defended Wolf when asked about immigration hawks’ concerns.
“Wolf has worked to advance the president’s bold, security-focused agenda from Day One of the administration,” the official said. “He’s an experienced and widely respected leader with a deep understanding of the department’s dynamic mission, its challenges and priorities — from securing our borders, to upholding our laws and protecting American workers. An invaluable asset to the cause and all we do.”
Trump announced in October that Kevin McAleenan would step down as acting DHS secretary after serving just six months. Although McAleenan oversaw a reduction in the number of migrants caught at the southwest border, Trump allies complained he wasn’t fully implementing the president’s policies.
Similar concerns have caused Trump to burn through four DHS secretaries in less than three years. Six other top department officials have resigned or been pushed out since April for largely the same reasons. Many of the department‘s senior leadership positions remain vacant or filled by acting officials.
“There’s just a lot of resignation that we can’t spend anymore time worrying about it,” said a former DHS official who served in a Republican administration. “Everybody’s just worn out because it’s been 2½ years of white-hot focus.”
Sens. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) and Gary Peters (D-Mich.), who lead the Senate Homeland Security Committee, wrote to Trump Wednesday, urging him to “promptly submit qualified nominees for DHS Secretary and all vacant positions at the Department.” They said seven of the 18 DHS offices requiring Senate confirmation are vacant with no nominations pending.
Trump has favored temporary department and agencies heads. Even Trump’s chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, is still operating in an acting capacity nearly a year into the job. Trump says the approach gives him more control over his deputies. The president also faces the reality that he struggles to get his preferred leaders confirmed in the Senate, despite having a Republican majority.
But the DHS search has also been complicated by a federal law that requires acting agency chiefs to have served under a Senate-confirmed secretary for 90 days. The rule makes Cuccinelli — currently the acting head of the relatively obscure U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services — ineligible to be acting secretary.
White House officials have also told senators they don’t have enough support in Congress — with roughly 20 senators opposed — to get Cuccinelli confirmed for the permanent DHS job. Instead, they have floated Customs and Border Protection chief Mark Morgan to senators as a possible nominee.
“That department needs stability right now, desperately, not someone who just wants to please the president and ride the White House roller coaster,” a former senior administration official said.
The latest round of sniping comes as Trump gears up for the 2020 campaign trail, where immigration will be a central focus. Just last week, Trump’s campaign aired a TV ad during the final game of the World Series proclaiming he’s no “Mr. Nice Guy,” but that he’s changing Washington in part by slashing illegal immigration.
Indeed, Trump has taken a number of steps in recent months to limit access to asylum and intensify illegal immigration enforcement within the U.S. However, other policies have not been as successful. A former Trump campaign official said while Trump has made some progress in building the border wall, the rest of the immigration policy is “chaotic and ineffective.”
In the court system, judges have put a hold on a number of other Trump orders, including one that would require immigrants to prove they can pay for health care costs in order to obtain a visa. Another order on hold would allow U.S. officials to deny green cards to immigrants who receive certain government benefits.
Congress also has failed to approve some of Trump’s key immigration legislative priorities, including a proposal that would ensure immigrants with criminal records who reenter the country get “strong mandatory minimum sentences.”
Even at the White House, there are setbacks. Jared Kushner’s long-promised new immigration plan — a merit-based system meant to admit more high-skilled, well-educated immigrants rather than ones who enter the U.S. based on family ties — has gone nowhere. White House officials are still meeting with immigration hawks as part of a “soft launch” to try to garner support. But they have been slow to release the bill’s language, according to two people familiar with the discussions.
“You would think he would say, ‘I care so much about this, let me have the team I want,’” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, an immigration advocacy group. “It hasn’t happened.”
Daniel Lippman contributed to this report.