Leaks, accusations and staff shuffle: Turmoil inside DHS

Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Kevin McAleenan watches as the color guard arrives for a ribbon cutting ceremony for the Department of Homeland Security's St. Elizabeths Campus Center Building in Washington, Friday, June 21, 2019. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
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Leaks. Pointed accusations. A top official’s resignation. And above all, increasingly dire conditions for migrants — those who make it across the border and those who fail, as captured in the searing images of a father clutching his child, both drowned , on the banks of the Rio Grande.

Ever engulfed in turmoil under President Donald Trump, the Department of Homeland Security has entered a new stage of dysfunction and finger-pointing as the administration continues to rearrange staff and push hardline rhetoric and policies that have failed to contain a surge in illegal border crossings, according to more than a dozen current and former administration officials, congressional aides and people familiar with the events. Many spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss internal deliberations.

The squabbling and jockeying over jobs come amid outrage over reports of children being held in squalid conditions and families dying as they try to make it to the U.S.

Over the past week alone, a scrapped immigration roundup targeting families prompted infighting and accusations of leaking. The acting leaders at both U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which manages the border, and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which handles immigration enforcement inside the country, have either stepped down or been reassigned. And questions remain about whether the president has confidence in the man he recently tapped to head the sprawling DHS, acting secretary Kevin McAleenan.

The leadership merry-go-round has spun so many times that it’s hard to keep track of who is in charge of what. And most of those leaders have not been officially nominated by Trump, let alone confirmed by the Senate.

“DHS is charged with keeping the nation secure, but the president is putting its leadership through a constant game of musical chairs to fit his political agenda,” said Rep. Bennie Thompson, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee.

The 240,000-person department is tasked with election and cyber security, disaster response and even the Secret Service. But in Trump’s world, Homeland Security means one thing: immigration. The president’s signature issue makes the department his focus and his ire . Balancing a White House eager to push major changes with the reality on the ground is a constant challenge.

Trump’s efforts in recent weeks have featured whiplash-inducing threats and reversals. The White House did not respond to requests for comment.

Last week, Mark Morgan, newly installed as acting director of ICE, sought to please his boss by moving forward with a long-considered operation that would target families living in the U.S. illegally. But questions remained, including whether there was enough detention space available for families, what would happen to the children of arrested parents, and whether the effort made sense, given the crisis at the border.

McAleenan, according to several officials, had cautioned against the idea, much like other leaders who were eventually ousted.

Then Trump tweeted without warning that a massive deportation operation was in the works. Damage control quickly ensued, with heated meetings at the White House.

And on Friday, specific details of the operation leaked to the press, including information about when the operation would begin and which cities it would target.

Amid finger-pointing over where the leak had come from, ICE canceled it over concerns for officer safety. Trump later said he called off the raids at the request of Democrats.

But the leaks enraged ICE officials. Former ICE head Tom Homan , a strong proponent of Trump’s policies, seemed to point a finger at McAleenan during an appearance on Fox News.

“This leak, which I know where it came from, we all know where it came from,” he said. Homan said the leaks put “officers at greater risk of harm.”

Homan told The Associated Press Wednesday that he had never said McAleenan was to blame.

“McAleenan’s a very talented man. I think he’s a smart man. And I hope he’s successful. And I think he’s done some good things,” he said.

McAleenan hasn’t commented. He has, however, pleaded with Congress for more money to help manage the influx of migrants at the border. Facilities are vastly strained, agents and officers are working around the clock, and the department is forced to divert funding and manpower. But the future of the emergency funding request is unclear, with the GOP-led Senate and the Democratic-led House passing different versions of the bill.

More immigration staffing also remains under discussion. Homan said he remains open to joining the administration as an immigration czar, even after Trump jumped the gun by saying on Fox that it was a done deal.

As for the turnover, Homan said he wouldn’t second-guess Trump’s decisions.

“I’m sure there’s reasons he’s making these changes. I think he’s hitting the reset button and coming up with some fresh ideas,” Homan said, adding that those selected for the jobs are all “career professionals. … The people that are there, they’re all talented, they all know the issues.”

But at ICE, officials have now had three bosses in as many months, beginning with Ron Vitiello, whose nomination was pulled, followed by Matt Albence and then Morgan, who came to Trump’s attention after defending his policies on Fox News. Morgan had been dismissed from his post at Customs and Border Protection shortly after Trump took office.

Morgan is now returning to the border agency after John Sanders, a wealthy businessman who took over as acting director after McAleenan was promoted, resigned Tuesday amid the outcry over border conditions. Albence will be returning as acting head of ICE, officials said.

While the political jockeying takes place, tens of thousands of migrant families are being held behind chain-link fences at border stations that are not set up for long-term — or even short-term — detention.

Lawyers have decried the conditions inside the facilities, especially for children. Some say they have witnessed toddlers with no diapers and dirty clothes and older children caring for younger ones.

And then there is the image of the man and his 23-month-old daughter, face down in shallow water, her arm draped around his neck. The father, Oscar Alberto Martinez Ramirez, frustrated because his family was unable to present themselves to U.S. officials to claim asylum, swam across the river with little Valeria to the U.S. side, according to the journalist who shot the image. But when he turned around for his wife, the toddler threw herself back into the water and was swept away. Both drowned as he tried to save her.

Democrats blamed Trump’s policies for the deaths, while the president blamed Democrats and defended his administration’s treatment of children in its custody.

“We’re taking care of them much better than President Obama took care of ’em, I can tell you that, much better,” he said.q