Eric Katz | July 31, 2017 | 0 Comments

How Trump’s White House Shakeup Will Affect DHS

John Kelly is now White House chief of staff. John Kelly is now White House chief of staff. Alex Brandon / AP

President Trump should act quickly to replace his recently reassigned leader of the Homeland Security Department, according to lawmakers, employee groups and former officials. Employees need direction at the top to successfully execute the administration’s agenda, the observers said.

Trump moved former DHS Secretary John Kelly to the White House to serve as his chief of staff, leaving a vacancy at the top of the government’s third largest agency. While Trump has named DHS veteran Elaine Duke as acting secretary, he previously stressed the importance of having a confirmed leader on Day 1 of his presidency, ramping up the pressure to fill the slot quickly. The president’s ambitious policy prescriptions for the department, lawmakers said, add to the urgency for a Kelly successor.

“Unfortunately, as with most major decisions in this administration, it is clear that this was rushed and not well thought out,” said Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., the top Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee, who accused Trump of bad timing given the Senate currently being in recess, extending the length of the vacancy. “With the approval of the Senate, the president must now replace Secretary Kelly with someone who is experienced, measured and understands that homeland security is not a partisan issue.”

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Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., who leads the committee that will hold confirmation hearings and first approve or disapprove of the next nominee, praised Kelly’s service and promised to collaborate with Trump as he searches for a successor.

“I look forward to working with the administration as they choose a new leader for the Department of Homeland Security,” Johnson said.

The National Treasury Employees Union, which represents 25,000 Customs and Border Protection employees, said it has already engaged Duke on the issues its members face, including staffing shortages. NTEU President Tony Reardon said he expects CBP employees’ work to “continue uninterrupted,” but stressed the importance of DHS having the right leadership in place to focus “on making progress on hiring and scheduling to improve morale for a workforce that is stretched too thin.”

DHS has maintained among the lowest morale and job satisfaction scores of any large agency in government for several years. Kelly has told Congress his leadership and empowering the rank-and-file workforce has already improved morale at the department.

In addition to the staffing shortages at various customs offices, DHS is in the process of fulfilling Trump’s request to boost immigration enforcement and border security personnel by 15,500 employees. Kelly was instrumental in issuing implementation guidance to begin that hiring surge, giving CBP and Immigration and Customs Enforcement specific guidelines for accomplishing that goal. Congress is aiming to provide the agencies with a down payment to enable them to hire the first wave of those employees in fiscal 2018.

Kelly also reshaped DHS policy on catch and release, prioritized deportations, U.S.-Mexico border fence construction and “sanctuary cities.” Under Kelly, arrests of undocumented immigrants have spiked while actual removals have slowed. After initially being caught of guard, Kelly in June spearheaded the interagency effort to implement Trump’s revised travel ban as altered by the Supreme Court.

Rafael Borras, who served as DHS undersecretary for management and acting deputy secretary in the Obama administration, said he expects career employees at the department to continue those efforts without much interruption. Kelly, he predicted, will continue to “play a strong role in policy and execution strategies” for DHS in his new job.   

“It’s highly unusual for a Cabinet secretary to depart so early in their tenure,” Borras acknowledged, but praised the “commitment and resiliency of employees” at DHS.

J. David Cox, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents employees at the Transportation Security Administration, Border Patrol and other DHS components, noted the department’s “presence is felt everywhere.”

“It’s of the utmost importance to replace Secretary Kelly with a person that is experienced, up for the task, and possesses a reverence for the work done by the American civil servants,” Cox said. “We look forward to working with whomever that person will be.”

In a statement before leaving the department, Kelly praised the “tremendous men and women” of DHS.

“When I left the Marines, I never thought I would find as committed, as professional, as patriotic a group of individuals,” the retired general said. “I was wrong. You accomplish great things every day defending our nation and I know your exceptional work will continue.”

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., the ranking member on Johnson’s Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said she had a good relationship with Kelly and requested an expedited replacement process.

“With the threats facing this nation,” McCaskill said, “I urge the president to nominate a qualified secretary to replace General Kelly as quickly as possible.”

In the meantime, Borras said, Kelly has left the department in good hands. “[Duke] is known within the department and has the respect of the career employees,” he said.

Still, Borras said, the Trump administration and Congress should prioritize filling the position.

“It’s still very early in the administration,” said the former official, now with A.T. Kearney. “There is still a lot of movement and positions to be filled.” He noted the importance of having permanent leadership at the department, and anticipated Trump would choose someone “in both experience and temperament, in focus and discipline, who will continue to implement the administration’s policies.”