The hiring is the latest DHS leadership shuffle by the White House, which is desperate to contain a record-breaking influx of Central American families that has pushed border crossings to the highest level in a dozen years. Frustrated with his administration’s inability to stem the crisis, Trump has sacked top Homeland Security officials and demanded a “tougher” response.
Cuccinelli, who has been hawkish on immigration policy during television appearances that also praise Trump, appears to fulfill the president’s desire to have a forceful personality and a loyalist at the highest levels of DHS. But his arrival risks new instability at the agency, coming six weeks after Trump ousted Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and replaced her with McAleenan, a long-serving official who was confirmed by the Senate last year as commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and who is one of the few administration figures who retains a favorable reputation with lawmakers from both parties.
Mark Krikorian, director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington think tank whose immigration-reduction agenda has had significant influence in the White House, called Cuccinelli “an unusual choice.”
“He doesn’t have any immigration experience, but he does have law enforcement experience,” said Krikorian, who said he was “cautiously optimistic” that the appointment would make a difference. The crucial factor, he predicted, would be access to the White House.
“If he does not answer directly to the president, he’s not likely to be able to get much done,” he said.
Before leaving DHS, Nielsen had advocated for the designation of a policy coordinator at the White House who would streamline communications and planning among the various federal agencies responding to the situation at the border, including the Departments of Defense, Justice, Health and Human Services, and Homeland Security.
The official said Nielsen wanted the coordinator to work out of the White House, not at DHS. “There is no one coordinating policy across the government,” the official said. “You have 10 people coordinating it.”
The White House offered the job to Cuccinelli after it was turned down by Tom Homan, the former acting director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, according to two officials. Trump also soured weeks ago on Kris Kobach, the Kansas Republican favored by immigration restrictionist groups, according to one senior administration official.
Cuccinelli will do the job from DHS, filling a role that would otherwise be McAleenan’s, which sets up potential conflicts.
“It is bad news for [McAleenan],” said one senior administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to provide candid views. “You have someone at the agency that the White House might have in mind to be the next DHS secretary.”
Another former department official predicted Cuccinelli’s lack of authority at the agency and distance from the White House would leave him in a weak position from the outset.
“Putting an immigration czar at DHS is a total waste,” the person said.
The Department of Homeland Security did not respond to inquiries about Cuccinelli’s role. Cuccinelli, who was at the White House on Monday, could not be reached for comment. His expected hiring was first reported by the New York Times.
If the White House is grooming him as a possible replacement for McAleenan, he would face a difficult path to confirmation.
Cuccinelli is deeply disliked by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who has vowed to block Cuccinelli from any Senate-confirmed post for leading efforts in 2014 backing insurgent candidates that hurt the Senate GOP majority, McConnell advisers said.
Two years ago, Cuccinelli signed a letter drafted by GOP activists calling on McConnell to step down.
When Cuccinelli’s name surfaced last month as a potential Nielsen replacement, McConnell told reporters he’d conveyed his unease to the White House. “I have expressed my, shall I say, lack of enthusiasm for one of them . . . Ken Cuccinelli,” McConnell said.
The Virginia conservative, who has a long record of combative television appearances, is even less popular with Democrats. “This is absurd and outrageous,” Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) wrote on Twitter. “He doesn’t deserve a taxpayer-funded salary.”
Others more supportive of the move noted that the DHS secretary’s role is challenging enough when there isn’t a migration crisis — and with hurricane season approaching, McAleenan could benefit from a strong personality fully devoted to the border.
In April, more than 100,000 migrants were taken into custody along the U.S.-Mexico border for the second consecutive month, and the numbers in May are on pace to go even higher. McAleenan warned in late March that U.S. agents and infrastructure at the border had hit a “breaking point,” and since then the situation has worsened, leaving holding cells so overcrowded that DHS officials have been transferring migrants out of South Texas by aircraft simply to make room for ever-growing numbers of new arrivals.
Cuccinelli has been a vocal advocate for Trump’s proposed border wall and other measures popular with hard-liners. He has backed constitutional changes to restrict birthright citizenship, urged lawsuits against employers who hire undocumented immigrants and at one point supported denying immigrant workers — including those in the country lawfully — from collecting unemployment benefits if they are fired for not speaking English on the job.
His appointment to DHS has others in the administration worried there will be too many players fighting to establish control over an immigration agenda, with White House adviser Stephen Miller already chafing officials at DHS.
One White House adviser said Cuccinelli would advocate for the White House’s aggressive position at the agency. Miller has argued to Trump that others within DHS are trying to stall him.
McAleenan last week pushed back at an attempt by Miller to have Trump’s pick to lead ICE installed at CBP instead. In a tense White House meeting Thursday, McAleenan said he needed control over DHS to remain in his job, administration officials said.
The animus between Cuccinelli and Senate Republicans stems from his leadership of the Senate Conservatives Fund, which organized anti-incumbent efforts, and from his role at the 2016 Republican convention, when he derided “petty, tyrannical rules” and threw his ID badge on the floor in protest of Trump’s nomination. He was a strong supporter of the presidential bid by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), who has since become one of Trump’s most ardent defenders.
Another senior administration official who welcomed the appointment said there was an acute need for someone to be an immigration policy field marshal.
“The president’s frustration is not directed at DHS alone,” the official said. “It’s DOJ, DOD, State. So this job will ensure closer coordination at a senior level, and it’s an effort to acknowledge you need someone who can have conversations with department heads about policies and drive them to the same place.”
But the official also acknowledged that Cuccinelli’s appointment risked undercutting McAleenan at a time when the acting secretary has been making inroads with lawmakers, including Democrats who see him as a neutral law enforcement official rather than a White House political operative.
“I don’t see how this appointment makes things better on the Hill,” the official said.