President Trump said Friday he is looking for someone “tougher” to lead the country’s top immigration enforcement agency, hours after the White House unexpectedly withdrew its nomination of Ronald Vitiello to lead U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Asked why he had jettisoned Vitiello, the current acting director of ICE who had been scheduled to accompany him on a trip to the border Friday, Trump told reporters: “We’re going in a little different direction. Ron’s a good man. But we’re going in a tougher direction. We want to go in a tougher direction.”
The move blindsided lawmakers, Department of Homeland Security officials and others across the administration who said Friday they could not fathom why the president would pull his ICE nominee at a moment when U.S. government officials are saying the nation’s immigration enforcement system is at a “breaking point.”
The sudden withdrawal — which the Senate was notified of Thursday evening — surprised Republicans who believed Vitiello was on track to be confirmed soon. His nomination cleared the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee last month and was on track for a vote in the Judiciary Committee — which also oversees the ICE position — next week.
“Yeah, I don’t know what happened,” Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), who chairs the Homeland Security Committee, said in a phone interview Friday. “I thought we had addressed what issues we had in our committee, and he got bipartisan support in our committee.”
“I will freely admit that I was completely surprised by this,” Johnson said, adding that committee staffers were trying to figure out what happened to make the White House pull back his nomination.
Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.) supported Vitiello in the committee vote, while Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) was the lone GOP member to side against him.
The president’s previous nominee to lead ICE, Tom Homan, languished without confirmation for months until finally stepping down in frustration. The White House picked Vitiello, a 30-year veteran of Border Patrol, as its nominee in August.
With more than 20,000 staffers and a $6 billion budget, ICE is the U.S. agency responsible for immigration detention and deportations, and its homeland security investigations unit combats drug smuggling, human trafficking and other cross-border crimes, with agents deployed around the world.
Johnson declined to respond to Trump’s insinuation that Vitiello was not tough enough for the enforcement position, saying: “I thought he was a very dedicated public servant, was certainly very knowledgeable, had a lot of experience with his background. . . . I thought he would’ve done a fine job in his new position.”
Vitiello’s nomination had been opposed by Chris Crane, the head of the pro-Trump union that represents ICE agents. In February, Crane, head of the National ICE Council, sent a letter to senators urging them to reject Vitiello, citing previous social media posts and other public comments.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, on Twitter, Vitiello compared Trump to the cartoon character Dennis the Menace and in another post likened Democrats to the Ku Klux Klan. During his confirmation hearing, Vitiello apologized for the tweets and said they were meant as jokes.
In recent months, as unauthorized border crossings have soared to their highest levels in more than a decade, Trump immigration policy adviser Stephen Miller has been criticizing Vitiello to the president and looking for an opportunity to cut him loose, according to one senior administration official who works on immigration enforcement matters.
Trump has imbued Miller with more authority over border security and immigration matters than ever before, according to two senior administration officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss fissures in the administration made worse by the surprise move against Vitiello.
“Ron Vitiello has spent as much time defending our nation’s borders as Stephen Miller has been alive,” one official said of Miller, who is 33.
One senior official said: “This is part of an increasingly desperate effort by Stephen to throw people under the bus when the policies he has advocated are not effective. Once it becomes clear that Stephen’s policies aren’t working, he tells the president, ‘They’re not the right people.’ ”
“Stephen wants to put Attila the Hun as director of ICE,” said the official, who believes Miller is seeking to install someone closer to him in the top ICE job.
The White House did not respond to requests for comment or provide further explanation about what Trump meant by seeking someone “tougher.”
Vitiello faced tough questions from Democrats over his previous social media posts but was able to win support from Carper.
“They just got him passed out of committee a few weeks ago, after a furious lobbying campaign,” a senior administration official said. “You had Thomas R. Carper, a Democratic senator, take a tough vote to confirm the head of ICE and support someone who is qualified and capable.”
“Now we’re getting emails from Senate staffers saying: ‘What’s wrong with you? What are you doing?’ ” the official said. “Ron’s decency and rational nature imperiled his time at ICE in this administration.”