What to Know in Washington: Nielsen Out at DHS Amid Border Fight

Donald Trump’s frustration over his inability to fulfill his signature 2016 campaign promise to curb illegal immigration led him to oust his second homeland security chief, as the president eyes his re-election prospects next year.

Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen resigned at Trump’s request after a meeting with him yesterday at the White House residence, according to people familiar with the matter. Her departure follows Trump’s decision last month to give a larger say on immigration policy to a hard-line aide, Stephen Miller, who had complained that Nielsen was too weak, some of the people said.

Trump has been mulling for at least the last week the appointment of both a replacement for Nielsen and a possible immigration “czar” for his administration, the people said — an official who the president and his top advisers believe can accelerate his policies, including construction of more border wall.

The president named Kevin McAleenan, the commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, a component of DHS, as acting secretary of the department.

Trump won election in 2016 in part on promises to build a border wall and crack down on undocumented immigrants, pledges that are unraveling after lawmakers refused to give him all the money he wanted for a wall and a spike in border crossings. The U.S. apprehended more than 66,000 people in February after crossing illegally — an increase of more than 18,000 from a month earlier — and Nielsen has said that apprehensions would approach 100,000 in March.

People Trump has discussed as he’s considered filling high-ranking immigration positions include former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach and former acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement Thomas Homan, who is a favorite of the president and Miller, according to two people familiar with the matter. One person said former Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker has also been mentioned. Read more from Jennifer Jacobs.

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg
Nielsen during a House hearing in March.

DHS Faces Thin Bench: Nielsen’s departure further thins a strikingly slim leadership team at the department. Lawmakers for months have been concerned about a lack of leadership at the department. The department’s deputy secretary stepped down last April, and the current acting deputy secretary also serves as the department’s undersecretary for management. More than a dozen senior leadership roles at the department are vacant or filled in an acting capacity, including the leader of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, who stepped down last month. Michaela Ross has more.

Border Wait Times Spike: A week of heated threats from Trump to “close” the border means Mexican companies are rushing to get as much cargo into the U.S. as they can, in case of a shutdown. Meanwhile, as many as 750 Customs and Border Protection officers were reassigned to border patrol sectors in late March, limiting the personnel needed to allow for the flow of goods from south to north. As a result, wait times to cross the border have soared and can be as many as 10 hours longer than usual. Read more from Michael Hirtzer and Thomas Black.

Another Border Wall Showdown: The Democrat-led House on Friday sued to block Trump from tapping as much as $8.1 billion for the start of construction of a wall along the nation’s southern border, saying Congress never authorized the expenditure. Trump’s emergency declaration is the subject of at least five separate lawsuits. The Justice Department fired back at two of them last week, saying in a court filing that they “raise political questions that courts are not equipped to answer” and should be thrown out. Andrew Harris and Kartikay Mehrotra give an overview of the legal wrangling.

Politics & Policy

Trump to Tout Environment Work: Trump is preparing a novel campaign strategy for a president who’s pulling the U.S. from the international Paris accord on climate change, cheer-leading for coal, one of the dirtiest source of power, and suggesting that wind turbines cause cancer. He’s going to tout his environmental credentials.

Administration officials are developing talking points on climate change and cultivating a list of environmental “success stories,” from cleaner air to reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, said a person familiar with the plans who asked not to be named describing internal deliberations. “President Trump believes you can grow the economy and protect the environment,” said Judd Deere, a deputy White House press secretary. Read more from Jennifer A. Dlouhy and Ari Natter.

Push for Trump’s Tax Returns: Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney vowed that members of Congress will never see Trump’s tax returns, as Democrats and the president’s allies spar over whether lawmakers have the right to request them.

Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.), a member of the House Ways and Means Committee that is seeking six years of Trump’s personal and business tax returns, said the president can’t decide for Congress whether it exercises its legal authority to get the documents — not with the intention to make them public, but to inform policy decisions by the panel’s chairman and provide proper oversight. “We are looking very carefully right now as to whether or not the IRS is properly auditing and enforcing tax law on the president o f the United States, and we’re considering legislative changes toward that end,’’ Kildee of Michigan said on ABC’s “This Week’’ yesterday.

But Mulvaney said a “political hit job’’ isn’t a legitimate reason for Congress to request a president’s tax returns. He called it “a political stunt’’ by Democrats. “They know they’re not going to get these taxes,’’ Mulvaney said on “Fox News Sunday.’’ Read more from Mark Niquette and Anna Edgerton.

Democratic Effort on USMCA: Two top Senate Democrats, including longtime free-trade foe Sherrod Brown (Ohio) are crafting a labor enforcement proposal that could help ease the way for passage of Trump’s new North American trade agreement. Sens. Brown and Ron Wyden (Ore.) are floating ideas to address Democrats’ concerns about the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement and build a consensus that could help get it through the Democratic-controlled House. The proposals include measures that would bar Mexican exporters from benefiting from the deal’s reduced tariffs if they violate workers’ collective-bargaining rights.

“The Wyden-Brown proposal is a positive sign that Democrats are looking at the USMCA agreement seriously and trying to find ways to get to ‘yes’ on it,” said Bill Reinsch, a senior adviser at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. Read more from Jenny Leonard and Laura Litvan.

‘Sanctions Fatigue’ in Congress? Tough talk about the need to punish Russia for meddling in the 2016 U.S. election is running into the reality that Congress’s enthusiasm for additional sanctions is waning. “We face a little bit of sanctions fatigue around here these days,” said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), the sponsor of one of the bills aimed at Russia. “Hopefully we’ll get more people on board.”

Two main proposals are circulating aimed at increasing pressure on Russian individuals and companies by restricting their access to U.S. markets and capital. Both Senate bills received significant attention in 2018 after Trump failed to condemn Russia for its election meddling, but they lost steam after November’s midterm elections and aren’t moving any faster in this year’s Congress. Many lawmakers still want Russia to face stronger consequences for its actions in the U.S. and elsewhere, but there’s no clear consensus on how to send the right message to the Kremlin. Read more from Daniel Flatley and Steven T. Dennis.

O’Rourke Bets on ‘Hope’: In Iowa last week, Democrats, old and young, said they saw parallels between the messages of Beto O’Rourke and former President Barack Obama, who was 45 when he started his bid for the presidency in 2007. Despite the animosity toward Trump among Democrats, the lure of sweeping liberal proposals and combativeness being offered by other candidates, there remains an appetite in the Hawkeye State for compromise and healing divisions. Read more from Sahil Kapur.

Bennett Plans Run: Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) said he doesn’t expect a diagnosis of prostate cancer will keep him from joining the already crowded Democratic field for president in 2020. “I’m looking forward to running in 2020,” Bennet said on CNN’s “State of the Union” yesterday. “This obviously was unexpected. But we caught it early. It’s something that I think we’re going to be able to treat. And I don’t think it should keep me off the trail.” Bennet announced last week that the cancer was discovered during a screening and that he plans to have surgery when Congress recesses this month, followed by a few weeks of recovery. “I would like to get on with this,” he said on CNN. Read more from Mark Niquette.

What Else to Know Today

U.S.-China Trade Talks: Trump’s top economic adviser says the U.S. and China are “closer and closer” to a trade deal, and that top-tier officials would be talking again this week via “a lot of teleconferencing.” Larry Kudlow’s “guarded optimism, maybe more than guarded optimism” on CBS’s “Face the Nation” yesterday came after China’s state-run Xinhua news agency reported that progress was made during talks in Washington that ended Friday. High-level U.S. and Chinese officials met on the heels of discussions in Beijing the previous week. Read more from Ros Krasny and Miao Han.

Kudlow Defends Moore, Cain: Trump “stands behind” Stephen Moore and Herman Cain, his picks for two open seats on the Federal Reserve Board, Kudlow said. Criticism of the pair for being insufficiently qualified or too partisan for the independent central bank is “unfair,” Kudlow said yesterday on CNN’s “State of the Union.” Moore and Cain, if confirmed, would represent Trump’s view that economic growth is not, by nature, inflationary, he said. Read more from Ros Krasny and Ben Brody.

Israel Election: Trump emphasized his support for Israel days before what he forecast would be a “close” election there, and made the case for Jewish voters in the U.S. to abandon their traditional support for Democratic candidates in the next election cycle. “Under my administration the U.S. will always support Israel’s right to self defense,” Trump said on Saturday at a meeting of the Republican Jewish Coalition in Las Vegas. The speech came days before tomorrow’s vote in Israel in which Prime Minister Benjam in Netanyahu, a Trump ally, is seeking re-election. The Israeli leader has been dogged by corruption allegations. Read more from Alyza Sebenius.

Trump Committed to NATO: Trump is committed to the trans-Atlantic military alliance, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said, even as he presses European allies to boost defense spending. “President Trump has stated again and again that he is a strong supporter of NATO,” Stoltenberg said in an interview with CNN host Fareed Zakaria yesterday. “Opposite to what many people believe,” the U.S. “is increasing their military presence in Europe,” he said. Read more from Tony Czuczka.

Pompeo Warns Libyan Warlord: The Trump administration issued a stern warning to Libyan militia leader Khalifa Haftar to halt his forces’ advance on Tripoli, and urged all sides to continue with political negotiations. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo said in a statement late yesterday that the U.S. was “deeply concerned” about the warlord’s threat to the internationally recognized capital. He said the military campaign was endangering civilians and undermining efforts to resolve the dispute peacefully. “We have made clear that we oppose the military offensive by Khalifa Haftar’s forces and urge the immediate halt to these military operations against the Libyan capital,” Pompeo said. “There is no military solution to the Libya conflict.” Read more from Brendan Scott.

Iran Terror Designation: Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif warned of consequences for U.S. forces in the Middle East should Trump move ahead with a reported plan to designate Iran’s powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps as a terrorist organization. Supporters of Netanyahu have long agitated for the designation and “understand its consequences for U.S. forces in the region,” Zarif tweeted yesterday. Trump “should know better than to be conned into another US disaster.”

The Wall Street Journal on Saturday cited unidentified U.S. officials as saying that the terrorism designation was planned, backed by National Security Adviser John Bolton and Pompeo. The Central Intelligence Agency and Pentagon warned against it, the Journal reported. Read more from Abbas Al Lawati and Golnar Motevalli.

Ecuador and Assange: Ecuador rejected WikiLeaks’ claims that it plans to expel the organization’s founder Julian Assange from its London embassy, calling them “false news” aimed at undermining the dignity of the country. In a statement Friday evening, Ecuador’s Foreign Ministry denied it has an agreement with the U.K. about Assange’s arrest. By spreading such news, “the asylum seeker and his associates express once again ingratitude and disrespect toward Ecuador,” the ministry said. Read more from Jose Orozco, Thomas Penny and Stuart Biggs.

Fritz Hollings Dies: Ernest “Fritz” Hollings, who helped smooth integration in South Carolina before spending 38 years in the Senate as an advocate for impoverished Americans and a voice for restraint in government spending, has died. A family spokesman confirmed Hollings’ death early Saturday at age 97, according to the Associated Press. No cause of death was given. Hollings, a Democrat, steered his state past desegregation battles and toward an emphasis on job creation as governor from 1958 to 1962. Read more from Laurence Arnold and Bill Arthur.

To contact the reporter on this story: Zachary Sherwood in Washington at zsherwood@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Loren Duggan at lduggan@bgov.com; Giuseppe Macri at gmacri@bgov.com

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