Trump withdraws ICE nomination to go 'in a tougher direction'

President Trump abruptly withdrew his nomination for Ronald Vitiello to run the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency, leaving the agency without a Senate-confirmed director at a time when the president and his administration claim the country to be in the midst of an immigration crisis.

“Ron is a good man, but we’re going in a tougher direction,” Trump told reporters Friday morning, confirming earlier reports that the White House had sent members of Congress an official notice about the withdrawal late Thursday.

The notice, which came hours before Vitiello was scheduled to travel with Trump to the southwest border Friday, was reportedly so unexpected that some Homeland Security officials initially speculated it had been sent by mistake.

Vitiello, a longtime Border Patrol official who currently serves as both deputy and acting director of ICE, is the second nominee Trump has submitted to the Senate for the position.

As the federal agency tasked with enforcing U.S. immigration laws — which includes arresting, detaining and deporting undocumented immigrants — ICE is largely viewed as the face of the Trump administration’s hard-line immigration agenda. However, the force of more than 20,000 law enforcement and support personnel has been operating without a Senate-confirmed director since Trump took office and appointed Thomas Homan as acting ICE chief.

Acting ICE Director Ronald Vitiello listens as President Trump talks about the border on Feb. 1. (Photo: Jim Watson/ AFP/Getty Images)
Acting ICE Director Ronald Vitiello listens as President Trump talks about the border on Feb. 1. (Photo: Jim Watson/ AFP/Getty Images)

A 30-year immigration enforcement veteran who has been honored for his work as executive associate director of ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations under President Barack Obama, Homan eagerly embraced Trump’s pledge to crack down on illegal immigration. He quickly ramped up arrests of undocumented immigrants across the country and became a vocal critic of sanctuary cities.

Homan effectively ran the agency for nearly 10 months before Trump officially nominated him for the ICE director position in November 2017. Despite earning high praise from the president, Homan’s handling of the agency raised concerns among Democrats in the Senate and his nomination did not make it far before Homan announced, in April of last year, that he would retire in June.

Vitiello, a longtime U.S. Border Patrol Agent and former senior border official, was then tapped to take over for Homan, bringing a decidedly lower-profile approach to the role than his outspoken predecessor, who went on to become a Fox News contributor. Trump officially nominated the new acting director in August of last year.

Vitiello encountered plenty of his own roadblocks on the road to confirmation, however, including concerns over controversial social media posts as well as his refusal to rule out future separations of immigrant families at the border.

In February, the Senate Committee on Homeland Security decided to postpone a vote on Vitiello for a second time after receiving a detailed letter from the president of the National ICE Council, the pro-Trump union representing ICE officers, outlining several issues with Vitiello’s “job performance record, judgment, character, and credibility,” which the organization said made him “unfit to serve as Director.”

Ultimately, however, the committee voted on March 11 to approve Vitiello’s nomination, and it was on track for a vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee when Trump abruptly pulled the plug, reportedly taking many lawmakers and Homeland Security Officials by surprise.

An ICE spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment, and Trump has yet to offer any indication of whom he might be considering. In the meantime, Vitiello remains the agency’s deputy and acting director.

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