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Trump ditches his nominee to lead ICE, saying he wants someone ‘tougher’ for top immigration enforcement role

Ronald Vitiello testifies before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on Nov. 15, 2018. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

President Trump said Friday that he wants someone “tougher” to lead the country’s top immigration enforcement agency, unexpectedly dumping his own nominee for the job to cap a week during which he repeatedly threatened to close the U.S.-Mexico border amid soaring numbers of illegal crossings.

Ronald Vitiello, a 30-year veteran of the U.S. Border Patrol and currently the top official at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, would have been Trump’s first Senate-confirmed director of ICE, an agency with a deportation and detention role that is central to the president’s promises to crack down on illegal immigration.

Vitiello was to have joined Trump for a visit to the border in California on Friday, but he was left off the trip at the last minute, hours after the White House notified Congress that the president had rescinded his nomination.

“Ron’s a good man,” Trump told reporters as he left for the trip. “But we’re going in a tougher direction. We want to go in a tougher direction.”

The decision to ditch Vitiello stupefied Homeland Security officials and lawmakers. Some ICE officials and Senate aides were so taken aback, they told reporters they thought the White House had made a clerical error.

But Trump had vacillated on Vitiello for several months after hearing complaints from senior adviser Stephen Miller, ICE union boss Chris Crane and others, according to White House aides who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal deliberations.

U.S. Border Patrol agents presented President Trump with a piece of the new southern border replacement fencing on April 5 to thank him for his support. (Video: The Washington Post)

Trump’s immigration frustrations boiled over again during the past week as unauthorized border crossings have soared to their highest levels in more than a decade. The migrant surge has been driven by Central American families arriving in record numbers, and they have been overwhelming U.S. agents and detention space.

U.S. has hit ‘breaking point,’ top border official says in El Paso

Vitiello has advocated for the president’s policies, but he has been relatively restrained in public statements about enforcement matters and does not make bombastic statements. Vitiello could not be reached for comment, but a senior administration official who spoke to him said Vitiello was blindsided by Trump’s decision to withdraw his nomination.

During Trump’s appearances in the city of Calexico, Calif., whose name is a synthesis of “California” and “Mexico,” Trump did not provide additional rationale for rescinding Vitiello’s nomination. He visited a stretch of recently replaced steel fencing, where his administration has installed a plaque that touts it as “the first section of President Trump’s border wall.”

In fact, the fencing replacement project had been planned years before Trump took office and is where border barriers long have separated the U.S. city from the metropolis of Mexicali.

Democratic lawmakers Friday filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration, which House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) accused of “stealing” funds from other federal programs to pay for new fencing, in violation of congressional authorizations.

Trump did not address the lawsuit, but at an appearance with Border Patrol agents, ICE officials and others in Calexico, the president said the United States doesn’t have the ability to accept any more migrants and should turn them all away.

“Our country is full,” Trump said. “I’m sorry . . . that’s the way it is.”

Calexico, a small California city across from a Mexican metropolis, draws a visit from Trump amid border debate

Trump also advised border agents to deny entry to asylum-seeking families, apparently urging them to make use of a U.S. pilot program that requires Central Americans to wait in Mexico while their claims are reviewed by U.S. courts.

“You go back to Mexico and Mexico will take them back into their country,” the president said.

U.S. officials say nearly 100,000 migrants arrived at the U.S. border in March, many of them surrendering to U.S. agents in areas where the United States already has tall steel fencing in place.

Six administration officials said Friday that the decision to jettison Vitiello was a sign of the expanding influence that Miller now wields over immigration matters in the White House, particularly as Trump lashes out at Mexico and Central American nations — as well as Homeland Security officials and aides who express doubts about the legality of his ideas.

In a recent Oval Office meeting, Trump told Miller he would be in charge of handling all immigration and border affairs, according to officials familiar with the meeting. Miller, who was a policy aide to then-Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) before joining the Trump presidential campaign, will play a key role in picking Trump’s third nominee to lead ICE, aides said.

Miller has encouraged the president to take harder stances with Mexico than Jared Kushner, who has sought instead to deepen cooperation with the Mexican government. Miller affirms and encourages the president’s most hard-line instincts, such as the proposal to shut down the entire border, a measure White House economic advisers and GOP lawmakers warned would be a catastrophe for U.S. companies.

‘If you close the border, Eagle Pass will die.’

Miller has pushed for someone to take over the ICE role who would be more receptive to his policy ideas. He also is “particularly adept,” one administration official said, at placing blame on others in the White House when ideas he promotes do not work. Miller, who was traveling with Trump on Friday, did not respond to requests for comment.

The sudden withdrawal of Vitiello’s nomination surprised Republicans who thought he was on track to be confirmed soon. His nomination cleared the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee last month and was likely to get a vote in the Judiciary Committee — which also oversees the ICE position — next week.

“Yeah, I don’t know what happened,” Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), who chairs the Homeland Security Committee, said in a phone interview Friday. “I thought we had addressed what issues we had in our committee, and he got bipartisan support in our committee.”

“I will freely admit that I was completely surprised by this,” Johnson said, adding that committee staffers were trying to figure out what happened to make the White House withdraw Vitiello’s nomination.

Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.) supported Vitiello in the committee vote, while Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) was the sole GOP member to oppose him.

The president’s previous nominee to lead ICE, Tom Homan, languished without confirmation for months until finally stepping down in frustration. The White House picked Vitiello, who had been serving as chief of the U.S. Border Patrol, as its nominee in August.

With more than 20,000 staffers and a $6 billion budget, ICE is the U.S. agency responsible for immigration detention and deportations, and its homeland security investigations unit combats drug smuggling, human trafficking and other cross-border crimes, with agents deployed around the world.

Other administration officials said Friday they could not fathom why the president would pull his ICE nominee at a moment when Homeland Security officials say the nation’s immigration enforcement system is at “breaking point.”

During Trump’s first year in office, ICE arrests in the U.S. interior rose, and Homan, the agency’s then-acting director, was a frequent and forceful proponent of the president’s strategy, praising him for “taking the shackles off” his agents.

But the most recent ICE statistics indicate that interior arrests have declined in recent months, as more agents are sent to cope with the surge of border crossings. U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials, and ICE, have resorted to quickly processing and releasing thousands of migrants into the United States because they lack space to detain them, and waits for court hearings can last months or years.

Johnson declined to respond to Trump’s insinuation that Vitiello was not tough enough for the enforcement position, saying: “I thought he was a very dedicated public servant, was certainly very knowledgeable, had a lot of experience with his background. . . . I thought he would’ve done a fine job in his new position.”

Vitiello’s nomination had been opposed by Crane, the head of the pro-Trump union that represents ICE agents. Crane, head of the National ICE Council, sent a letter to senators in February urging them to reject Vitiello, citing social media posts and other public comments.

During the 2016 presidential campaign, on Twitter, Vitiello compared Trump to the cartoon character Dennis the Menace and in another post likened Democrats to the Ku Klux Klan. During his confirmation hearing, Vitiello apologized for the tweets and said they were meant as jokes.

In recent months, as unauthorized border crossings have soared to their highest levels in more than a decade, Miller has been criticizing Vitiello to the president and looking for an opportunity to cut him loose, according to a senior administration official who works on immigration enforcement matters.

President Trump backed down April 4 from his threat to close the southern border immediately and gave Mexico a “one-year warning” before taking action. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

Trump has imbued Miller with more authority over border security and immigration matters than ever before, according to two senior administration officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss fissures in the administration made worse by the surprise move against Vitiello.

“Ron Vitiello has spent as much time defending our nation’s borders as Stephen Miller has been alive,” one official said of Miller, who is 33.

One senior official said: “This is part of an increasingly desperate effort by Stephen to throw people under the bus when the policies he has advocated are not effective. Once it becomes clear that Stephen’s policies aren’t working, he tells the president, ‘They’re not the right people.’ ”

The White House did not respond to requests for comment or provide further explanation about what Trump meant by seeking someone “tougher.”

Vitiello faced pointed questions from Democrats over his previous social media posts but was able to win support from Carper.

“They just got him passed out of committee a few weeks ago, after a furious lobbying campaign,” a senior administration official said. “You had Thomas R. Carper, a Democratic senator, take a tough vote to confirm the head of ICE and support someone who is qualified and capable.”

“Now we’re getting emails from Senate staffers saying: ‘What’s wrong with you? What are you doing?’ ” the official said. “Ron’s decency and rational nature imperiled his time at ICE in this administration.”

Kim reported from Las Vegas.