(Official DHS photo by Barry Bahler)

Who’s Going to Lead DHS Now? Front-Runners Emerge to Replace McAleenan

The decision of who will replace Kevin McAleenan at the head of the Department of Homeland Security may come down to the experienced agency No. 2 or a vocal favorite of the president with a laser focus on immigration.

“I want to thank the President for the opportunity to serve alongside the men and women of the Department of Homeland Security,” McAleenan tweeted at 8:01 p.m. EST on Friday night, the six-month anniversary of his appointment as acting DHS secretary. “With his support, over the last 6 months, we have made tremendous progress mitigating the border security and humanitarian crisis we faced this year, by reducing unlawful crossings, partnering with governments in the region to counter human smugglers and address the causes of migration, and deploy additional border security resources.”

McAleenan vowed to “work with the White House and DHS leadership teams on a smooth transition.” President Trump tweeted that he would announce an acting secretary this week, saying only that he had “many wonderful candidates.”

One candidate could move into McAleenan’s role with ease: Acting DHS Secretary David Pekoske.

In April, Pekoske was plucked from his leadership role at the Transportation Security Administration to serve as acting deputy DHS secretary, leaving Acting Deputy Administrator Patricia Cogswell in charge of TSA.

Pekoske was confirmed to the TSA post in August 2017. He served as U.S. Coast Guard vice commandant under Commandant Thad Allen from August 2009 to May 2010, capping off 33 years of USCG service.

McAleenan noted Pekoske’s “wealth of experience” in making the TSA administrator his deputy, including facing “impressive challenges” in acquisition and procurement reform.

Cogswell said at a June industry event that Pekoske was eager to come home to the agency. “He has a 5-year term; he intends to come home and finish it,” Cogswell said at TSA Industry Day in Washington. “…He believes so much in this home and so much in this mission and wants to be part of it.”

Cogswell said that in his absence TSA is “able to fully execute” but “know that he is part and parcel of everything.”

But some in the president’s orbit are urging him to move Acting Director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Ken Cuccinelli into the role.

Cuccinelli was appointed in June after the departure of Director Frank Cissna, who was reportedly disliked by White House immigration policy crafter Stephen Miller. The American Federation of Government Employees, which represents USCIS employees, complained at the time that Cuccinelli, the former attorney general of Virginia, “knows nothing about immigration, adjustment of status or naturalization.”

Cuccinelli, who vowed then to “ensure our legal immigration system operates effectively and efficiently while deterring fraud and protecting the American people,” is a frequent talking head on TV and radio and combative with critics on Twitter. A group of conservative political leaders issued an open letter Monday calling for Cuccinelli to be appointed DHS secretary, arguing that “rather than backing away from a media that is at times overtly hostile to the president’s enforcement of the law, Cuccinelli has consistently been an unwavering, articulate, and extremely knowledgeable advocate of the policies his agency has put forward.”

“Additionally, he brings an outsider’s perspective to a bureaucracy of nearly 250,000 people, and will offer fresh insights in processes and redundancies in need of streamlining of a huge federal agency,” stated the letter.

Last April, 19 conservative groups sent a letter to Trump urging him to pick Cuccinelli to lead DHS. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has publicly expressed opposition to the nomination of Cuccinelli, who was president of a lobbying group that has opposed McConnell.

Trump may also choose to move another acting head of a DHS component into the top spot, such as Acting Commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection Mark Morgan or Acting Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director Matthew Albence. McAleenan was moved from CBP to lead DHS.

Trump might also pick former acting ICE Director Tom Homan, whom he nominated to lead the agency in November 2017. Homan retired in June 2018 without Senate movement on his confirmation.

“Tom Homan’s coming back; I would say that would be announced next week except I’d rather announce it now,” Trump said on Fox News in June while stating that Homan would be his new border czar. “He’s going to be very much involved with the border; that’s what he really wants to be involved with.”

After Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen left DHS in April, Homan was also the subject of nomination speculation. Homan told HSToday back then that McAleenan was “a good choice” to “hit the ground running” at DHS because of his strong knowledge of border issues. He stressed that Trump wants to “change some things around” and get some “fresh ideas” at DHS.

One thing that may be easier to predict is whether the president’s pick will be a nominee needing Senate confirmation or another acting secretary.

“I like ‘acting.’ It gives me more flexibility. Do you understand that? I like ‘acting.’ So we have a few that are acting. We have a great, great cabinet,” Trump told reporters in January.

McAleenan was never formally nominated to lead DHS, nor has Cuccinelli been nominated to lead USCIS. Neither have Morgan nor Albence.

McAleenan traveled to Tucson, Ariz., this past weekend to attend the funeral for U.S. Border Patrol Agent Robert Hotten, who died Oct. 6 on Mount Washington. McAleenan was joined by Morgan and Chief of the U.S. Border Patrol Carla Provost.

“I was honored to be with the family, friends & colleagues of CBP Border Patrol Agent Robert Hotten as we celebrated his life,” McAleenan tweeted. “The outpouring of support by his fellow agents and community was inspiring and reminds us of the sacrifices of law enforcement and their families.”

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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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