President Donald Trump’s congressional allies are alarmed by his purge at the Department of Homeland Security — urging him not to fire more top officials and warning him how hard it will be to solve twin crises at the border and the federal agencies overseeing immigration policy.
The president’s frantic four days of bloodletting at DHS and other agencies blindsided senior Republicans who are already fretting about difficult confirmation battles ahead. Some are worried about the rising influence of top White House aide Stephen Miller. And after November elections in which suburban voters rejected Trump’s hard-line immigration agenda, the president is once again making it the centerpiece of the GOP’s platform.
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“It’s a mess,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said, summing up the dynamic on the border and in Washington.
Republicans note that the president has the right to fire whoever he wants, but few offered an explicit defense of his decisions to oust DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, pull the top Immigration and Customs Enforcement pick, remove the Secret Service director and threaten more terminations.
“Strikes me as just a frustration of not being able to solve a problem. Honestly, it wasn’t Secretary Nielsen’s fault. It wasn’t for lack of effort on her part. I don’t know if there’s anybody who’s going to be able to do more,” said Cornyn, who spoke to Nielsen on Monday and planned to speak to her interim replacement, Kevin McAleenan, later in the day.
Cornyn said he has no idea what Miller’s “agenda” is in determining immigration policy because he isn’t Senate-confirmed and doesn’t correspond with the Hill.
“I thought that Nielsen was doing a fantastic job,” added Joni Ernst of Iowa, the No. 5 Senate GOP leader. “I would love to see some continuity. I think that’s important.”
Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the most senior GOP senator, is trying to head off even more dismissals as Trump tries to reshape DHS into a “tougher” mold.
In an interview, Grassley expressed concern that Trump may soon boot U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Director Lee Francis Cissna and Kathy Nuebel Kovarik, who heads the office of policy and strategy at USCIS.
“I heard that they are on the list to be fired,” Grassley said. “They are doing in an intellectual-like way what the president wants to accomplish. So no, they should not go.”
Republicans empathize with Trump’s frustrations over the border and Congress’ languid pace at changing immigration laws. They mostly backed him on his 35-day government shutdown over the border wall, buckling only as the standoff dragged into its second month.
Most of them hated his emergency declaration on the southern border, but only 25 GOP lawmakers between the two chambers ended up bucking him. And when Trump and Miller sought to tank an immigration compromise last year, Senate Republicans overwhelmingly sided with the president and left Democrats holding the bag on the legislative collapse.
But on immigration, the party is not in lockstep with Trump. So even as the president pursues more aggressive strategies on the border, the GOP might not stick with him ahead of an election cycle that has the Senate up for grabs and with Republicans eager to take back the House.
“He thinks it’s a winning issue,” said Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the Republican whip. “It works for him. It may not work for everybody else.”
Nielsen’s ouster wasn’t a shock. Stories had emanated from the White House for months that she could be kicked off the job given Trump’s rising frustration with the growing number of border crossings.
But Republicans said they did not like that she was made to take the fall.
“Nielsen was doing the best she can. She can’t make Congress get off its ice-cold, lazy butt and fix the asylum laws. She can’t build a wall by herself. She can’t make the Central American countries work with us. … Only the president can do that,” Sen. John N. Kennedy (R-La.) said. “If someone resigns and then the White House staff cuts ‘em to pieces, I just think that’s classless.”
On Monday, Trump found few allies in his decision to get rid of Nielsen with the exception of congressional Democrats who viewed her as the face of the administration’s family separation policy and wanted her gone.
Senate Homeland Security Committee Chairman Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) admitted the obvious in a written statement: “I am concerned with a growing leadership void” at DHS.
Most Republicans liked Nielsen and thought she’d been given an impossible job. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) praised her glowingly on the Senate floor for her “experienced and steady leadership.”
“I understand the frustration” by Trump, said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), who backed the president’s efforts to “shake things up” at DHS. “Whether there’s a design behind this, I honestly don’t know. I have been told there’s going to be new policies and proposals, but I don’t know what those are yet.”
Centrist GOP Rep. Will Hurd, who narrowly won reelection in 2018, said the turnover in the upper ranks of DHS isn’t helpful during a critical time at the southern border, though the Texan expressed confidence in Nielsen’s successor.
“When you’re dealing with something that’s the worst we’ve seen in 12, 13 years, having to deal with that problem and having new people come in and deal with it is always tricky,” said Hurd, whose district stretches along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Moderate GOP Rep. Tom Reed of New York said he would prefer to focus on issues like infrastructure, drug pricing and health care in the 2020 election cycle, saying the issue of immigration is being kept alive “for political purposes.”
Reed also took a veiled shot at Miller: “One hard-liner is not going to dictate the outcome of this.”
But Miller’s rise in the Trump administration is merely one more indication of how the president gravitates toward the restrictionist wing of his party.
“The president is really unhappy with the results and he’s trying to find a different formula that produces a different result,” said Roy Blunt of Missouri, the No. 4 Senate GOP leader. “Unless you either change the court directives or the asylum law, it’s very hard to quickly come up with a solution. And the president’s frustrated by that.”
The problem for Trump is that that’s not going to happen anytime soon. Congress’ dithering on immigration in the six years since the Senate passed its “Gang of Eight” comprehensive immigration bill, which died in the House, is no surprise.
Last year’s bipartisan Senate talks sputtered. Talks between Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas) on the family migration crisis went nowhere. So it’s easy for the president and his closest confidants to blame the Hill.
That’s what House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) did in an interview Monday.
“Congress also has a responsibility here to act. This is where legislation has to be passed,” he said, echoing Trump’s call to revamp U.S. asylum laws.
“What the president is doing is seeing the crisis and trying to solve the problem,” McCarthy said. “He’s trying to get the right people in the right positions.”
Marianne LeVine contributed to this report.
Published at Mon, 08 Apr 2019 23:44:57 +0000