Built on a hill in Southeast Washington, the new $5 billion headquarters of the Department of Homeland Security has a commanding view of the nation’s capital, a sentry post meant to symbolize DHS’s role as protector of the United States.
The shake-up, critics say, has accelerated DHS’s transformation under Trump from an agency focused primarily on counterterrorism to one defined by its immigration enforcement efforts — and increasingly embroiled in some of the White House’s most controversial initiatives.
“I want people to look at the DHS seal and be reminded that this is the agency of the government that is here to protect them,” said Jeh Johnson, who ran DHS during President Barack Obama’s second term. “But I fear they look at it now and see the agency that separated children from their parents.”
Several of the senior DHS leaders who gathered to cut the ribbon last week at the new campus — the largest federal construction project in Washington since the Pentagon — will not be staying long enough to work there.
In a span of six days, Trump pushed out Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen; her deputy, Claire M. Grady; the head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Ronald Vitiello; and the director of the Secret Service, Randolph D. “Tex” Alles. The upheaval also left the Transportation Security Administration and U.S. Customs and Border Protection — the country’s largest law enforcement agency — with leaders in acting roles.
The firings came so fast that senior GOP leaders publicly pleaded with the president not to sack anyone else, while rattled DHS officials resorted to dark humor about the location of their new offices on the grounds of the former St. Elizabeths Hospital, the government’s first mental institution.
The president’s willingness to jettison so many DHS agency heads at once would have been unthinkable more than a decade ago, critics say, when the department was created in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Successive presidents have sought to reassure the public by quickly filling vacancies at the department and moving nominees swiftly to senate confirmation.
It’s DHS’s immigration enforcement agencies — ICE, CBP and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, whose director may be the next to go — that have Trump’s attention right now.
Trump was long frustrated with Nielsen’s inability to reduce border crossings, but the final straw came earlier this month when she traveled to Europe to attend a Group of 7 summit and meet with counterterrorism and cybersecurity officials.
DHS officials say they had apprised the White House of Nielsen’s plans, but the president was livid when he learned she had traveled to London, insisting she should be focused on the border.
After an angry call from the White House, Nielsen hurried back to Washington, but by then her job was already imperiled.
White House aides say Trump believed she wasn’t sufficiently focused on the border or “tough” enough to deliver the results he wanted there.
Trump made his top border security chief, Kevin McAleenan, the acting secretary of DHS. A longtime official at CBP, McAleenan has a background in counterterrorism and aviation security.
Nielsen’s expertise was cybersecurity, and her nomination to lead DHS was widely viewed as a recognition of its growing importance in the DHS threat index. She occasionally raised the topic with Trump, but aides say his questions usually fixated on the border — and occasionally on disaster recovery, if a topic was in the news.
Trump largely cares about these two parts of the DHS mission — immigration and disaster recovery — according to three current and former administration officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share candid views of the president.
“When Trump thinks of DHS, he immediately thinks of the border,” one senior White House official said.
A former senior administration official said Trump sometimes called cybersecurity “the cyber” and said that dealing with it or talking about it would only get you in trouble. He has occasionally joked to aides that the world would be better without computers and other devices after hearing about potential attacks and hacks — and would grow bored during lengthy technological briefings about cybersecurity from Nielsen, former homeland security adviser Tom Bossert and others.
Trump’s impatience with DHS is shared by senior adviser Stephen Miller, who has argued to White House aides that DHS should be reorganized and that it doesn’t make sense to have so many different parts under one umbrella. Miller has occasionally likened the agency to the “deep state” and has said to administration officials that many of the people in the vast agency are not on board with the president’s agenda, calling the agency a “total problem.”
The White House and Miller did not respond to requests for comment.
Senior DHS officials say the president’s focus on immigration enforcement has not undermined their work on counterterrorism, cybersecurity and other efforts. “We are laser-focused on the daily threats we face,” said David J. Glawe, a former FBI agent and counterterrorism specialist who is DHS’s top intelligence official.
As the third-largest agency in the U.S. government after Veterans Affairs and Defense, DHS has been unwieldy since the days that it was stitched together from nearly two dozen separate bureaus, agencies and offices.
Its structure hasn’t gotten any simpler, nor has the range of threats it has to address.
“As complex an enterprise as the department has become . . . you really need steady leadership at the top,” said Lisa Monaco, who served as Obama’s homeland security adviser and earlier held the top national security position in the Justice Department.
For more than a year, the department has been without a permanent deputy secretary, Monaco said, a position that traditionally is responsible for ensuring that the department’s many components work together.
From its inception in 2002, the Department of Homeland Security had a muddled cybersecurity mission. It was supposed to coordinate the federal government’s efforts to mitigate threats to critical infrastructure, including power grids and communications networks. But it was rarely clear if the department was taking the lead on those issues or playing a supporting role.
“On cyber, it certainly struggled in the early years,” said Christopher Painter, who served as the State Department’s top coordinator for cybersecurity. “It tried to do everything and didn’t do anything particularly well.” But the department seemed to find its stride as it refined its mission to focus on protecting U.S. civilian computer networks and acting as a liaison on security issues between companies and the government, Painter said.
Experts have praised the Trump administration and Nielsen for establishing the new Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) within the department. It’s meant to focus on threats to power grids, communications networks and other critical systems, and it’s led by a director with a background in security in government and the private sector, Christopher C. Krebs.
“We are acutely dialed into our mission,” Krebs said in an interview, adding that his agency now has more than 2,200 full-time federal employees working on cyberdefense.
Obama administration officials said that the department deserves credit for raising awareness among state and local governments about possible hacking of election systems.
But with the departure of Nielsen, Painter said, there aren’t enough senior leaders who understand the cybersecurity issue and have the clout to shape policy.
“If you don’t have someone in the leadership role who cares about this issue, it does very much risk being sidelined,” he said.
The Coast Guard’s role in DHS under the Trump administration also has been complicated by the department’s expanding focus on the southern border.
The administration requested $750 million for a new polar icebreaker — a top request of the Coast Guard’s — in its fiscal 2019 budget. But the funding sat in limbo for months as House Republicans sought to spend $5 billion to begin building Trump’s proposed border wall by cutting funding from other DHS programs. Congress ultimately approved $655 million to begin building the polar ship, the first of six the Coast Guard wants. It isn’t clear whether the service will receive money for the others in the future.
Michael Leiter, who was director of the National Counterterrorism Center in the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, said that the department had “come a long way” on its cybersecurity mission but worries that it could fade in relevance. The same goes for the department’s counterterrorism mission, Leiter said, which is aimed primarily at securing the commercial aviation system and ports of entry.
“The southern border is the least of their counterterrorism concerns,” Leiter said. “The political rhetoric and president’s statements make me extremely concerned these other missions are not getting the leadership focus and resources.”
Michael Daniel, a former cybersecurity coordinator at the White House, said the department is performing a necessary cybersecurity function, which is to look across many sectors of the economy and government and think about the issue in a holistic way.
He said that the intense focus on security at the southern border risks the department’s ability to think in the long term.
“When any issue in an administration becomes overly dominant, it takes up all of the policy time. It dominates the conversation and drives out other issues that at least certainly warrant discussion,” said Daniel, now president and chief executive of the Cyber Threat Alliance, a nonprofit organization that shares threat information.
“Am I worried about DHS’s ability to respond to something bad happening in cyberspace? No. They will accomplish that mission,” Daniel said. But, he added, “the turmoil at the top of DHS and turmoil in the administration in general — that begins to have an impact on more-long-term policy issues. It becomes more difficult to propose new legislation or new regulations or new policies.”
Dan Lamothe contributed to this report.