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Acting secretary blocked Stephen Miller’s bid for another DHS shake-up

White House senior adviser Stephen Miller leaves the Republican weekly policy lunch at the Capitol in Washington on May 14, 2019.
White House senior adviser Stephen Miller leaves the Republican weekly policy lunch at the Capitol in Washington on May 14, 2019. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)

An attempt by President Trump’s senior adviser Stephen Miller to engineer a new shake-up at the Department of Homeland Security was blocked this week by Kevin McAleenan, the department’s acting secretary, who said he might leave his post unless the situation improved and he was given more control over his agency, administration officials said.

The closed-door clash flared over the fate of Mark Morgan, the former FBI official the president has picked to be the new director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

With Morgan eager to move into the top job at ICE, Miller on Wednesday urged the president to have Morgan installed as the new commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) instead.

McAleenan the next day told senior White House officials that he — not Miller — was in charge of the department, said three Trump administration officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal tensions one Trump aide likened to an “immigration knife fight.” McAleenan also argued that he should make personnel decisions at his agency, or at least be involved in them, these people said, and that communication needed to improve. McAleenan met with Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, among others, the officials said.

Acting Department of Homeland Security secretary Kevin McAleenan testified April 30 before a House committee on matters related to the U.S.-Mexico border. (Video: Reuters)

McAleenan prevailed in the dispute. Morgan will take over as acting ICE director next week, according to three Homeland Security officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the Morgan’s arrival at ICE. Matthew Albence, the current acting director whom Miller wanted to keep in the top role, will return to his job as ICE deputy director.

“This was a power struggle between McAleenan and Miller, and McAleenan won,” said one senior administration official with knowledge of what transpired.

Mulvaney couldn’t be reached for comment. The Department of Homeland Security declined to comment. White House officials said Friday the two men had worked out some of their tensions since the argument.

President Trump tapped Mark Morgan, who briefly ran the Border Patrol under the Obama administration, as his choice for director of ICE. (Video: The Washington Post)

With DHS facing a spiraling migration crisis at the border and the president this week pitching an immigration overhaul that was panned by lawmakers, the clash in the White House was an indication of the roiling personal battles playing out behind the scenes.

The ongoing flow of migrant families into the United States along the country’s southern border has strained U.S. Border Patrol resources so far beyond capacity that, for the first time, the Trump administration’s border crisis is spilling out into America’s interior. CBP is considering processing migrants at locations hundreds of miles from the border, an official said Friday. Record numbers of families have crossed the border in recent months, and unauthorized migration is at its highest level in more than a decade. Trump has declared a “national emergency” over the issue — a contentious declaration that has split opinion along party lines.

At Miller’s urging, Trump last month ousted DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and the previous acting director of ICE, Ronald Vitiello, along with other top officials. Miller has argued to the president that he needs a different team, one that will be more aggressive in carrying out his agenda — and Miller has frequently argued in meetings about immigration that others are seeking to undercut the president.

Before their departure, Nielsen and Vitiello had challenged a plan devised by Miller and Albence to carry out mass arrests of migrant parents and children eligible for deportation in 10 U.S. cities. Miller has accused other officials of not writing enough regulations or not being aggressive enough in the effort to stop the irregular flow of migrants.

Trump at the time announced that he wanted to go in a “tougher direction,” and on May 5 he announced Morgan as his pick to replace Vitiello. The decision to pull Vitiello’s nomination blindsided Nielsen, who learned from Capitol Hill aides, according to people familiar with the matter. She was dismissed three days later in a Sunday meeting at the White House and replaced by McAleenan in an acting capacity.

When McAleenan was appointed, Miller — who has played a vast role in immigration policy from his West Wing office — told White House officials and others that he would back McAleenan. The acting secretary worked in the Obama administration and has drawn some bipartisan praise over his two decades in government. 

Morgan worked at the FBI under James B. Comey and was sent to CBP to lead a use-of-force overhaul. The effort was a success but made him deeply unpopular in the insular culture of the Border Patrol, whose senior leaders chafed at the sight of an outsider wearing the agency’s green uniform and giving orders.

Miller’s attempt this week to install Morgan at CBP — instead of ICE — would have undercut McAleenan and risked a new backlash from CBP leaders. According to two officials, Border Patrol union chief Brandon Judd joined Miller in the effort to put Morgan at CBP, where he would displace John Sanders, whom McAleenan has placed at the head of the agency. Trump is close with Judd and often asks his opinion on immigration decisions.

Judd disputed the claim that he worked with Miller to install Morgan at CBP instead of ICE.

“I had absolutely no voice in the discussion and I played absolutely no part in the decision,” Judd said in an email early Saturday morning. “I supported the choice after the fact.”

Albence is expected to remain at ICE and will be eligible to retire in eight months, DHS officials said.

Trump’s initial pick of Morgan for the post, announced via Twitter on a Sunday morning, surprised many in the administration and led to a later tweet clarifying the nomination, which requires Senate confirmation.

This article has been updated to include Judd’s comment.