The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee had planned to vote Wednesday on the nomination of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Acting Director Ronald Vitiello, but postponed the vote to review “serious issues” surrounding President Trump’s pick to permanently lead the agency, said Chairman Ron Johnson (R-Wis.).
Vitiello, the former chief of the Border Patrol and acting deputy commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, was named acting director in June to fill in for retired Acting Director Thomas Homan. Trump had nominated Homan for the permanent directorship in November 2017, but his nomination remained pending in the Senate.
At his Nov. 15 confirmation hearing, Vitiello told lawmakers that, if confirmed to lead the agency, one of his highest priorities “will be to better demonstrate to the public, Congress, and the media the importance and criticality of the mission to protect the homeland and improve public safety and why our agency’s existence should not be up for debate.”
On Wednesday, Johnson told his committee that further review was needed into Vitiello’s nomination and the vote would be delayed.
“We are going to continue to do some due diligence. The unions have raised some serious issues, which we’re looking into and I think that’s appropriate,” the chairman said. “So I’m not sure when we may take a vote on that. We’re getting very quick responses and I seem to think some very good responses from Mr. Vitiello and from [the Department of Homeland Security] on some of the issues raised. We may be able to move that quickly.”
Johnson told the Washington Post afterward that “we’re just trying to rapidly go through the issues raised by the union and do our due diligence to get answers about it.”
The Senate Judiciary Committee also needs to pass Vitiello’s nomination to move it to a floor vote. A business meeting on judicial and U.S. attorney nominees was canceled today amid a standoff as Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) vows to vote against all nominees until a bill to protect special counsel Robert Mueller gets a vote on the Senate floor.
The National ICE Council, which was also critical of Homan, wrote in a letter to the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee that their coalition “neither supports nor opposes” Vitiello but is “aware of several matters that give us serious concern about him.”
For one, the union accused the acting director of “at best” showing “extremely poor judgment” in a March 2016 tweet on a private account that compared pictures of then-candidate Trump and Dennis the Menace: “This I can tell you! 100%.”
“We are concerned with what appears to be a political statement against the now President and the possibility that this Tweet represents Mr. Vitiello’s true feelings about the President and his plans for the agency,” wrote the union leaders.
The letter also raised concerns about Vitiello only being in the acting post for “a short period of time” and about how he handled a summertime “Occupy ICE” protest in Portland.
At his confirmation hearing, Vitiello said he was aware of the letter. “Obviously I have, as the acting director, and if confirmed as the director, will have a contractual obligation to work with the ICE Council on all matters that affect employees,” he said. “I’ve spent quite a bit of time in the short time I’ve been at ICE since June, meeting with employees. I’ve had several town halls, San Antonio, Harlingen, Richmond, the Fairfax team of Washington field office, very interested in what is driving morale, how I can improve and articulate on their behalf in this setting, in the media, in public, amongst themselves. And so it’s very important for me to understand where the employees are coming from.”
“The union has — we share that mission in protecting the employees. And so I met with the president of the Union Chris Crane in August,” he added. “I think the, second, we had a substantive discussion on the things that I think we can most do beneficially together. And I look forward to continuing that relationship and do productive things on behalf of the workforce.”
“What about some specific charges about potential retaliation, not allowing union members to regain full-time employment within ICE, and could you just respond to some of those tweets?” Johnson asked.
“Most of what’s outlined in that letter happened before I became the acting director, and so there’s a number of things I want to look into, there’s a number of conversations that I want to have around it,” Vitiello replied. “As it relates to union officials, their role is to represent the workforce. They are paid by the government 100 percent of their time to represent the union. They do that. Again, I have responsibilities to meet and adjudicate their issues. And so we’ll continue to keep the dialogue open and I look forward to working with them on specific things.”
“I think the pay issue, as you helped us with in my previous career with Border Patrol, is the thing that is the most urgent as it relates to that workforce, and Chris Crane, the president, has specific suggestions on how to get to where we need to be on that,” he said. “And I look forward to a productive conversation around that.”
On the extended protests outside the Portland office, Vitiello noted the lack of local law enforcement help in protecting the ICE employees and told lawmakers that “we’ve put steps in place to monitor social media and get better at sort of protective intelligence as it relates to our spaces.”
“There’s a regular reporting regime. I get a report every day that talks about what threats are out there on the Internet and social media, what we get from informants and other agencies. And so we’ve gotten better about our response. But what was critical at the time when it was needed was the local response that didn’t come. And so we were behind the curve — the whole community was behind the curve until we got the resources there,” he said.
“We did what we could with a contingency and in a situation that we hadn’t predicted before. We didn’t expect that the locals would not clear the streets and allow people to get out of the building,” the nominee added. “So it took us a while to do that.”