Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen and Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan visit the CBP Advanced Training Center in Harpers Ferry, W.Va., on March 14, 2019. (DHS photo by Tim D. Godbee)

What Will Happen at DHS? Former ICE Acting Director Homan, DHS CSO Marshall Weigh in

Former DHS officials see both opportunity and cause for concern in the shakeups from the top that have ousted Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, DHS Undersecretary for Management Claire Grady and Secret Service Director Tex Alles in less than a week, as well as President Trump’s withdrawal of Immigration and Customs Enforcement nominee Ron Vitiello.

“Frankly, there’s only one person that’s running it. You know who that is? It’s me,” Trump told reporters Wednesday when asked about senior advisor Stephen Miller’s role in the tumult and whether he would considering appointing Miller to lead DHS.

“We have done a great job at the border with bad laws,” Trump said. “…A lot of wall is going up and every place we build a wall it’s less and less. But the power of the economy is like a magnet. It’s bringing more people than we’ve seen in a long time.”

Trump didn’t give an indication of his preferred permanent pick for the top DHS post. Some names being floated include former ICE Acting Director Tom Homan, Energy Secretary Rick Perry, former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, former Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, and former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach. “Haven’t really thought about that,” Trump said Wednesday at an immigration roundtable after being asked if Kobach is on the short list.

“I think the president is frustrated at border numbers and in his own way he’s hitting the reset button,” Homan, who did not address nomination speculation, told HSToday.

Homan stressed that Trump wants to “change some things around” and get some “fresh ideas” at DHS, while “stepping into a job where half of Congress doesn’t support what you do.”

He praised Nielsen as a secretary who “served this country well,” adding that it’s “really sad, Congress not closing these loopholes.”

CBP Commissioner Kevin McAleenan, selected by Trump to be acting Homeland Security secretary, “is a good choice” to “hit the ground running” at DHS because of his strong knowledge on border issues, Homan said, predicting McAleenan will face “more pushback than he’s ever had on the Hill.”

Homan said he didn’t know if McAleenan would want the permanent role at the agency, but considers the CBP commissioner a “patriot” who “will step up” if asked.

Even as acting director, though, Homan warned that “it’s going to be tough” for McAleenan. “Think of what can we do operationally within Border Patrol and ICE to stem this flow,” he said of the southern border crossings. “…Get up on the Hill, meet with members on both sides, explain what’s going on, give them the data, try to get them to slow this crisis.”

“We all have to agree we can’t continue like this,” he added.

Homan was nominated for ICE director in 2017 and retired in 2018 without Senate confirmation to the post. Vitiello was named acting director in June, after Homan left ICE, and Trump nominated the former Border Patrol chief to the permanent post in August. Asked about Trump’s surprise withdrawal of Vitiello’s nomination last week, as the president said he wanted to go in “a tougher direction,” Homan said, “I like Ron. I’ve known Ron 25 years. I don’t know what he was thinking.”

Grady was also serving as acting deputy secretary at DHS, another vacant role. Another imminent DHS departure is Deputy Undersecretary for Management Chip Fulghum, who had previously planned to step down and is expected to leave May 1.

Former DHS Chief Security Officer Greg Marshall, who spent nearly a decade working with Grady, told HSToday that a strong leader is needed in the management sector “to bring together the ecosystem” and skillfully foster an entrenched network of relationships — as well as oversee billions of dollars in contracts handled by procurement.

“I worry a little bit about what’s going on right because of how it’s going to affect all of the lines of businesses that fall under the undersecretary of management,” Marshall said, noting that even with competent leaders remaining in roles at DHS the departures have stripped away invaluable oversight.

Marshall said he has spoken with a number of Secret Service people who are happy that a rank-and-file director is filling the role left by Alles: James Murray, the assistant director of the office of protective operations who joined USSS as a special agent in 1995.

But moving McAleenan to DHS means that another top role could be indefinitely filled by an acting director. There’s still no nominee to replace former Defense Secretary James Mattis at the Pentagon. The FAA, FDA, FEMA, ICE, OMB and OSHA are other notable departments and offices led by acting heads. White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney is also acting, as is the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

In February, Trump told CBS that he likes “acting” leaders because “it gives me more flexibility.”

“I like ‘acting’ because I can move so quickly,” Trump said.

Marshall said there’s a benefit in acting roles if someone is auditioning for a part, but there’s a downside in the lack of job seekers for these roles nowadays. “I don’t know how many people are willing to step up now and take a position knowing that they’ll only have two years on the job or be involved in these incredibly demanding positions,” he said. “There are a lot of people out there that you thought would be part of the Trump administration that aren’t.”

“I worry whether he’s going to find somebody to take the DHS secretary job,” Marshall said. “He’s in his third year and already had two.”

Marshall stressed that McAleenan has “got to realize what he doesn’t know and get people in place he can count on,” particularly as hurricane season nears and DHS is stretched.

Nielsen’s concentration was cybersecurity, including the creation of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), and bringing the CBP leader into the role has sparked questions about how much the agency’s threat focus will shift. Homan argued that any DHS appointee is not going to be an expert in every issue, and “border is most important right now.”

“We have a different president now and his focus is on immigration,” Marshall said, recalling how cyber was “a big deal” at DHS during his tenure. “When the focus is moved from one place to another you can’t help but think something’s gotta give.”

“Basically, you don’t hear much about cyber anymore,” he added. “I’m not hearing the breadth of the cybersecurity discussion today heard back at DHS in 2015.”

With the DHS secretary “under attack at like no time in the past,” Homan said Americans should be thankful that there are those willing to “take such hate” in the top job and people should “step up and support whoever goes in the role.”

Marshall said it will be critical to fill key roles before hindsight shows how badly that skilled appointees are needed in the top posts.

“All it’s going to take is one bad day — something happens, God only knows what, there will be mass confusion within the upper ranks of DHS,” he said. “Whoever they put in, even on an interim basis, is not going to have that familiarity.”

Bridget Johnson is the Managing Editor for Homeland Security Today. A veteran journalist whose news articles and analyses have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe, Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor and a foreign policy writer at The Hill. Previously she was an editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and syndicated nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. Bridget is a senior fellow specializing in terrorism analysis at the Haym Salomon Center. She is a Senior Risk Analyst for Gate 15, a private investigator and a security consultant. She is an NPR on-air contributor and has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, New York Observer, National Review Online, Politico, New York Daily News, The Jerusalem Post, The Hill, Washington Times, RealClearWorld and more, and has myriad television and radio credits including Al-Jazeera and SiriusXM.

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