With the departure of its Senate-confirmed leader last week, U.S. Customs and Border Protection issued a new edict regarding which U.S. officials are worthy of a framed portrait on the agency’s walls.
“As of Monday, November 18, 2019, the only Official Leadership photograph that can be displayed in ‘CBP Official Leadership Displays’ is that of President Donald J. Trump,” CBP said in an email to staff members on Monday. “All official photographs of DHS and/or CBP Leadership should be removed from photo frames and replaced with the DHS Seal Placeholder. … When official photographs of DHS and CBP Leadership become available they will be provided and can be displayed accordingly.”
CBP issued the edict because Trump last week replaced acting DHS secretary Kevin McAleenan with acting DHS secretary Chad Wolf. Because McAleenan was CBP’s most recently confirmed commissioner, he appeared on the agency’s walls in that capacity, agency spokeswoman Stephanie Malin said.
The agency displays only portraits of officials in “confirmed leadership positions.”
“Now, without confirmed leadership in either the DHS secretary or CBP commissioner positions, the president is the only person in a confirmed position to display a picture of,” Malin said.
Top Republicans and Democrats have urged Trump to send nominees to the Senate for confirmation, especially for the Department of Homeland Security, the nation’s third-largest federal agency. Members of Congress fear any perceived instability at the top of the agency, which was created after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, to present a cohesive front against domestic and foreign threats. Among its key duties are to enforce the nation’s immigration laws and police its land, sea and air borders.
Wolf, who was named acting DHS secretary last week, is the fifth person to have the position during Trump’s administration; the current acting CBP commissioner, Mark Morgan, has been in his job since July and has not been nominated for confirmation.
The leadership photos — while symbolic — generally are part of a government-wide effort to spruce up the lobbies of federal buildings to welcome visitors, “reduce their anxiety,” and “reflect the dignity, enterprise, vigor, and stability of the American National Government,” according to the General Services Administration, the government’s real estate arm.
GSA’s website describes how to properly display photos of the president, vice president and Cabinet members. A GSA spokeswoman said the agency does not tell government agencies which official portraits to hang.
A U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services spokeswoman said the agency, which also is under DHS, also does not display portraits of unconfirmed officials. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has the same policy, a spokeswoman said, but it may hang portraits of career officials on its walls, such as acting director Matthew Albence.
Leadership at DHS’s border and immigration agencies has shifted significantly in recent months.
McAleenan served for seven months in an acting role and won praise from Trump for reducing attempted migrant crossings at the southern border with Mexico, but the president never nominated him to the top job. McAleenan announced his resignation last month.
Trump replaced him with Wolf last week, although the president created confusion because he said Wolf had taken over earlier than he actually did. White House officials have said Trump does not intend to nominate Wolf to be confirmed for the job.
Wolf had been acting undersecretary for strategy, plans and policy, but the Republican-led Senate confirmed him 54 to 41 last week to that position, allowing the Trump administration to install him in the top job as acting secretary.
Among the top officials who report to Wolf are various people on “acting” status: Morgan, at CBP; Albence, who has twice been named acting director of ICE; and Mark Koumans, the new acting director of USCIS, who this week replaced former acting USCIS director Ken Cuccinelli. With McAleenan’s departure, Cuccinelli ascended to the deputy secretary of DHS position, also in an acting capacity.
While the president is comfortable with a more flexible leadership approach — similar vacancies have persisted across the federal government — Republicans and Democrats have warned him that having unconfirmed leaders hurts DHS’s credibility and its ability to realize long-term goals.
The White House struggled to find a replacement for McAleenan because so many top positions at DHS were vacant or filled with temporary leaders, lacking a clear line of succession.
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), the Homeland Security Committee chairman, and Sen. Gary Peters (Mich.), the panel’s ranking Democrat, urged Trump this month to nominate officials for DHS top jobs requiring Senate confirmation, saying independent government watchdogs and national security experts “have recognized the importance of Senate-confirmed leaders and warned of the dangers of pervasive vacancies to government accountability and national security.”
Julie Tate contributed to this report.