Homeland Security chief’s future uncertain after a right-wing media assault

McAleenan is being targeted in a familiar pattern.
McAleenan is being targeted in a familiar pattern.
Image: Reuters/Luis Echeverria
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After another tumultuous shakeup, all three US agencies responsible for immigration policy are being led by new officials. Now there’s growing concern that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which oversees it all, might soon need to find a new leader too.

US president Donald Trump named Kevin McAleenan, a lawyer and former chief of Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the new head of DHS on April 7. He replaced beleaguered secretary Kirsten Nielsen. Earlier, McAleenan pushed for a wall and oversaw family separation on the southern border. Now he may not last through the month because he’s seen as too liberal, former and current government officials warned this week.

“I don’t see him hanging on the way they have been trashing him,” one former DHS official who had visited the White House this week told Quartz.

The trashing has been public, part of a pattern that’s become familiar in the Trump administration. In recent days, a series of right-wing outlets have run increasingly critical articles about McAleenan. This culminated with Fox & Friends hosts declaring on June 25 that McAleenan “seemed like he was guilty” of leaking information about a planned immigration raid. But the president himself had first tweeted about the raid a week before, and other officials had spoken to reporters about it even earlier in the month.

In sign of how tenuous McAleenan’s job is, he didn’t learn about the latest shake-up within his department—the June 25 resignation of CBP director John Sanders—until he read it in the press, a former DHS official said. McAleenan’s spokesman and the White House declined to comment on the situation. The DHS director remains focused on the job. He met with Congress members yesterday (June 25) and is traveling in Guatemala today.

Ur Jaddou, the director of DHS Watch, an independent watchdog group, and a former lead counsel with US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), said that McAllenan’s future can be summed up by one word: “Chaos.”

“I know it sounds a bit dramatic, but this agency has been through so much leadership change, it’s impossible for the quarter million employees of DHS to know what to do,” she said.

The department employs some 230,000 people and manages CBP, US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), and US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Together they are integral to the successful resolution of the current immigration crisis in the US.

US president Donald Trump’s crackdown on immigration comes as a surge of migrants—many of them families seeking asylum— cross the country’s southern border. Detention centers are dangerously overcrowded, and several asylum seekers have died in US custody in recent months. For now, McAleenan remains at the top of the department managing all this (and much more) with a $50 billion annual budget.

Death by right-wing media

In other presidencies, a flurry of critical news articles coming from one extreme end of the US political spectrum wouldn’t be a threat to a top official, especially the head of a crisis-ridden agency crucial to national security like DHS. But in the Trump administration, a right-wing media firestorm—even when based on misleading information and anonymous jabs—is often the precursor to White House personnel and policy changes.

That’s particularly true on immigration. Trump’s anti-immigration advisor Stephen Miller has a history of pushing negative information he thinks could hurt officials he considers enemies to the right-wing press, Quartz reported in April.

Francis Cissna, the Trump-appointed former head of USCIS was the last victim of a media swarm. He left in May, a month after unnamed sources told the Associated Press his job was in jeopardy and that Miller was orchestrating a purge at the Department of Homeland Security.

The next day came a signature Miller move—an article by the right-wing Washington Examiner’s immigration reporter, which relied almost entirely on a single anonymous source. Cissna, the source claimed, was a “deep state” employee obstructing Trump’s immigration vision. “When Kelly left, they never took the bad people with them. Everyone makes bad hiring decisions, [but] you don’t leave them on,” an unnamed former official told the paper.

Cissna’s office had crafted more than a dozen new proposed regulations to lawfully limit visas and restrict who can become US citizens, but clashed with Miller over how fast they could be pushed into law. He resigned on May 24 in a statement that used the words “lawful,” “law,” or “rule of law,” seven times.

One former DHS official briefed on the situation said that neither Trump, nor vice president Michael Pence, nor Trump chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, ever spoke directly to Cissna about performance concerns.

“There were never any calls, no emails, no questions, nothing,” the former official said.

Instead, Cissna was asked to resign by a White House official calling from a plane, as Trump flew to Japan.

From a “leaker” to a liberal

The drumbeats against McAleenan started June 22, when the Washington Examiner accused him of sabotaging a series of planned ICE raids targeting several major US cities. The paper reported that McAleenan leaked information about the plans to the Washington Post, citing a June 21 article in which they were first reported.

Trump himself had tweeted that ICE would soon be rounding up “millions of illegal immigrants” days before:


And early in June Mark Morgan, the new head of ICE, tipped off a small group of reporters to the new strategy, saying ICE would be “going after individuals who have gone through due process, who have received final orders of deportation.”

Politico’s early-morning Playbook reported the upcoming raids before the Washington Post on June 21, citing a former DHS official. Both NBC and CNN published similar articles the same day. Only the Washington Post, long a thorn in Trump’s side, was named by the paper.

In a Fox News op-ed on June 24, Brandon Judd, the president of the National Border Patrol Council, the union for border agents, repeated claims that McAleenan leaked the planned raids to the Washington Post, and piled on the criticism of the department head.

“As it pertains to actual border security, Mr. McAleenan has been an utter failure,” he wrote. “By definition, Kevin McAleenan should be considered anti-Trump.”

That doesn’t reflect his on-the-job performance. McAleenan was one of three DHS officials to recommend the family separation policy that forced thousands of kids to be separated from their parents, the ACLU says, citing an internal memo. He also defended the use of tear gas against protesters on the border. He backed the need for a border wall on Fox News and to Congress in March.

Nonetheless, other outlets, including Conservative Review, got out the knives. Then on June 25 the Washington Examiner took a look at McAleenan’s campaign donation history and found he has contributed to Democrats. For pro-Trump conservative media, that means he’s done.

“For a man who runs an agency tasked with securing our border, he’s donated for years to the one political party that’s made it known that enforcing immigration laws is not a priority: the Democratic Party,” the conservative website Town Hall wrote.

Take all of this with a grain of salt, one White House official told Quartz this week—Miller has less clout in the White House than people think. A White House official said something similar just before Cissna was asked to leave.