Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan told lawmakers on Capitol Hill today that, without another acting secretary ready to take his place, he’d stay on at DHS past his planned departure date if necessary.
McAleenan’s pledge comes as President Trump reportedly favors another acting secretary for the role and is looking for ways to get past the Federal Vacancies Reform Act hurdle — despite objections from some top Republican lawmakers.
Submitting his resignation letter earlier this month, McAleenan said Halloween would be his last day at the department. He tweeted at the time that he “will work with the White House and DHS leadership teams on a smooth transition.”
At a House Homeland Security Committee hearing today on global terror threats, Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) wrapped up by joining “the chorus of people who have thanked you for your service to this department for quite a long time.”
“You’ve been a consummate professional. I personally thank you for that,” Thompson said. “Going forward, the question is if nobody is appointed by tomorrow, are you prepared to stay on?”
“It is an important question,” McAleenan replied. “In my letter of resignation I did offer to the president to ensure a smooth transition… and want to make sure that happens for the department.”
“So you are, if asked to stay on, prepared to do it until someone is nominated for your position?” Thompson asked.
“I have to hope a plan for the successor is imminent but if necessary I will absolutely ensure a smooth transition,” McAleenan said.
Shortly after McAleenan announced his resignation, the top Senate-confirmed official at DHS, Acting Deputy Secretary David Pekoske, reportedly took himself out of the running for the top job in favor of returning to his administrator role at the Transportation Security Administration.
And last week it was reported that White House staff have advised Trump that Acting USCIS Director Ken Cuccinelli as well as Acting CBP Commissioner Mark Morgan were ineligible for the appointment under federal agency succession law.
Senate opponents of Cuccinelli, ensuring he would have a very hard time getting confirmed if nominated, include Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). The White House is reportedly attempting an end run around the vacancies law to install Cuccinelli using 2017 language in the defense reauthorization that allows the secretary or current acting secretary to alter the line of succession. If McAleenan added the Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Office to the line of succession, Cuccinelli could theoretically be named to that post and move to the top of DHS.
“There’s some opposition to Senate confirmation. I have not heard anything about some go-around. But it’s my understanding that the existing law would not permit him to” lead DHS, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) told Politico. “I don’t know how you get around that. I don’t think it’s possible because of what the law says, not because of anything else.”
“The White House would be well advised to consult with the Senate and senators before they take any decisive action that might be embarrassing to Mr. Cuccinelli or to the White House itself,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas).
Over at the House Homeland Security Committee, Thompson called on the White House to “immediately disavow these reports — including repeated rumors that Ken Cuccinelli will be installed by Trump as acting Homeland Security secretary through some convoluted process.”
“Cuccinelli is an anti-immigrant fringe figure who has no business being in government in any capacity, much less as a department head overseeing 240,000 employees working to keep the country safe,” Thompson added. “There is a reason he has been rejected by Republicans and Democrats alike and has no chance of Senate confirmation.”
One of the names presented to Trump as a viable possibility to fill the acting role is Acting Under Secretary of the DHS Office of Strategy, Policy, and Plans Chad Wolf, who is a former chief of staff to former DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen.
“There’s been no one more committed to the DHS mission and the president’s agenda than Chad, who’s helped implement the policies credited to addressing record levels of illegal crossings at the border,” an unnamed senior DHS official told NBC News. Wolf has drawn opposition from some conservatives for his past lobbying work connected to the H-1B visa program.