Ken Cuccinelli had virtually no hope of getting a Senate-confirmed job, having spent years leading conservative efforts to oust incumbent Republican senators, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
But in the six weeks since President Donald Trump named him as acting head of the relatively obscure U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, Cuccinelli has become one of the president’s top lieutenants for his aggressive immigration agenda.
The outspoken immigration hard-liner enjoys a direct pipeline to Trump, according to four people briefed on the arrangement, and has met multiple times with the president and with White House senior adviser Stephen Miller to discuss the administration’s plans to stem the tide of migrants across the U.S. border. Cuccinelli, who has also spoken with Trump by phone, has been told he’ll be involved with top immigration decisions, even those that are outside the scope of his agency, two of the people said.
The newly formed relationship is so tight that Cuccinelli’s boss, acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan, was not even aware of the meetings with Trump, one of the people said.
It’s an extraordinary position of power for an official with little relevant policy experience and whose job is to run an agency responsible for processing immigration paperwork and vetting asylum applicants, not border enforcement.
And it shows how Trump and Miller are eager to consolidate critical immigration decisions and messaging among a small group of like-minded individuals, without the vetting and oversight that would come from a more traditional bureaucratic structure.
“It’s not like he has expertise," said Ur Jaddou, director of the pro-migrant DHS Watch and a former USCIS chief counsel during the Obama administration. “He’s just some politician with no background in this area. I don’t understand it.”
Jessica Vaughan, a director with the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors lower immigration levels, defends Cuccinelli, saying he's breaking down bureaucratic barriers, not treading on his colleagues’ turf.
“These agencies all have to support each other’s missions, and there should not be firewalls between them,” she said. “He doesn’t see himself on a little island of USCIS.”
The White House has pushed Cuccinelli to tout the administration's policies on television, according to two people close to the administration.
Cuccinelli’s official Twitter account often promotes those appearances, along with the president’s agenda. In recent interviews, he's echoed Trump’s views on immigration raids, the inclusion of a citizenship question on the census and other matters that lie well outside the authority of the agency he manages.
“He’s got a hard-charging attitude,” said Mike Howell, senior adviser for executive branch relations at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “I think President Trump really likes having his surrogates out there pushing the message … Ken has really taken that mission to heart.”
At the Homeland Security Department, there are rumors that “Cooch,” as he’s been called since his school days, has his eye on the job now held by McAleenan, a former Obama administration official who’s been running the agency since April. McAleenan has become a target of immigration hawks inside and outside the administration.
“There is a very prevalent sense that [Cuccinelli] is auditioning for the secretary’s role,” one former USCIS official said. This person said McAleenan “seems to be a little bit softer” than Cuccinelli on immigration enforcement — an area for which USCIS has no responsibility.
When Cuccinelli was hired, White House officials knew he was interested in a bigger job, such as “immigration czar” — a position that currently doesn’t exist — or DHS secretary. Cuccinelli is still eyeing those jobs, according to those familiar with his thinking.
A USCIS spokesperson said in a written statement that Cuccinelli was proud to be “under the leadership of both the acting secretary and the president.” Furthermore, he “is enjoying the job,” she added.
In brief comments during a visit to Capitol Hill this week, he said it was "up to the president" to decide whether to submit his name for permanent confirmation to the USCIS post.
”That’s not up to me to pursue," he said.
The internal jockeying at DHS comes amid a period of extraordinary turnover at the department. A rolling purge that began in April led to the ouster of former Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and former USCIS Director Francis Cissna, among others. Many top homeland roles remain filled by acting officials — an exaggerated version of the personnel chaos that prevails across the administration.
In spite of this management instability, the White House is pressing ahead with aggressive immigration plans. On Monday, DHS and the Justice Department announced a new fast-track regulation to cut off asylum for migrants who pass through another country en route to the southwest border, a policy that could choke off the majority of asylum claims. On Tuesday, Trump son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner pitched Cabinet members on a 600-page bill to secure the southern border and create a new merit-based system for immigrants wanting to enter the country legally.
Trump's plans to focus his reelection campaign on immigration pushes Cuccinelli — who didn’t even support Trump for president in 2016 — to the center of the scrum.
If Trump dumps McAleenan and taps Cuccinelli for secretary, he'll have a hard time getting the Senate to confirm him. But Trump's oft-stated preference for acting Cabinet secretaries (he'll have five at the end of this week) may moot that point.
As for Cuccinelli's other aspirational job, that of immigration czar, Trump said in June that former ICE chief Tom Homan would assume that role (he called it “border czar”) even though Homan hadn’t agreed to do so, (and still hasn't, Homan told POLITICO this week). Homan calls Cuccinelli "a smart guy” who's "saying the right things about what he needs to be done.”
Cuccinelli was a frequent commentator on CNN before he joined the Trump administration in early June, and has maintained a regular presence on cable news programs. From June 10 to July 15, Cuccinelli appeared eight times on Fox News, four times on CNN, and twice on MSNBC, according to an analysis by the liberal group Media Matters.
White House officials have complained that McAleenan doesn’t want to do media interviews supporting administration policies, but McAleenan has defended his position by saying he doesn’t want to seem overly partisan, one of the people said.
McAleenan has made many recent media appearances, including granting interviews for radio, television and print outlets, a spokesperson for the Department of Homeland Security said in an emailed statement.
"Ensuring that the public is informed of the dire border security and humanitarian crisis at our Southwest Border remains a top priority of the Acting Secretary," said the statement.
Howell, a senior adviser at the Heritage Foundation, says the difference between the two directors is a matter more of style than substance.
“Francis had a reputation of being a thoughtful and deliberate chief at the helm,” Howell told POLITICO. “With Ken Cuccinelli you’re going to see a little more pedal to the metal.”
RJ Hauman, government relations director at the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which favors less immigration, praised Cissna, but said Cuccinelli could counteract “negative forces” blocking regulations at DHS and the White House budget office. “If anyone can put an end to that, it’s him,” Hauman said.
Cuccinelli faced no blowback from GOP senators at a party lunch on Wednesday, even though several, including McConnell, tried to derail his appointment to the acting USCIS role, according to two attendees. He consulted with them on measures to toughen the asylum system as senators try to craft a bill that can pass the chamber.
Cuccinelli discussed “trying to find someplace in one of the Northern Triangle countries to talk about asylum before they go on the journey,” said Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.). “Everybody was interested in the substance of the conversation.”
At USCIS, the agency he runs, Cuccinelli has powered ahead with major Trump administration initiatives such as the “public charge” regulation, which could block immigrants from obtaining green cards if they use certain public benefits or are deemed likely to do so in the future.
He’s sought to define USCIS as more of a national security agency than a benefit provider, an effort that follows Cissna’s February 2018 rewrite of the mission statement to remove the phrase “nation of immigrants” and highlight the agency’s duty to vet applicants for admission.
He's gone to war with some of the agency’s employee unions. Roughly a week after starting as acting director, Cuccinelli specifically called out asylum officers in an agency-wide email, saying they “took an oath to support and defend the Constitution” and that the position “requires faithful application of the law.”
The message provoked the ire of Danielle Spooner, the already skeptical president of a union that represents the 19,000 USCIS employees.
“Cissna was not the best director, but he understood immigration,” Spooner said. “This guy doesn’t even understand immigration. He doesn’t understand the law.”
A D.C.-based local union that represents 2,500 USCIS employees further increased tensions with Cuccinelli when it came out in opposition to the Trump administration’s “remain in Mexico” program, which forces certain non-Mexican asylum seekers to wait in Mexico pending the resolution of their U.S. asylum cases.
In a June 25 court filing, the union argued that the program could require asylum officers to participate in the “widespread violation of international treaty and domestic legal obligations — something that they did not sign up to do.”
This demonstrates the complaining union leaders are choosing to deny reality. Our system is broken. Even Democrats now admit we are in a crisis. But not the union…— USCIS Acting Director Ken Cuccinelli (@USCISCuccinelli) June 27, 2019
Cuccinelli ripped the union’s opposition as a “cheap political stunt" in a response posted to the official USCIS website. He also tweeted that the “complaining union leaders” were “choosing to deny reality” by saying that asylum cases could be processed in the U.S. without sending migrants to Mexico.
Michael Knowles, president of the local union, rejected Cuccinelli’s suggestion that the union didn’t represent the views of asylum staff. Knowles said the union tried to speak with Cuccinelli directly, but that Cuccinelli canceled a July 5 meeting to discuss the issue.
“We never imagined that we’d have this sort of strange conversation with our agency head through the media,” Knowles said.
Burgess Everett contributed to this report.