GOP senators raise concerns about Miller's ascension

Senate Republicans are raising red flags over the purge at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the apparent rise of White House adviser Stephen Miller.

GOP senators are publicly and privately voicing their concerns, praising outgoing secretary Kirstjen NielsenKirstjen Michele NielsenThe Seila Law case: Liberty and political firing Hillicon Valley: Twitter falling short on pledge to verify primary candidates | Barr vows to make surveillance reforms after watchdog report | DHS cyber chief focused on 2020 Sen. Kennedy slams acting DHS secretary for lack of coronavirus answers MORE and questioning the dynamics between Trump’s team of advisers and the embattled agency.

ADVERTISEMENT

The shakeup at DHS is increasing tensions between Republicans and, in particular, Miller, whose influence appears to be growing. Known for his conservative views and work as a staffer for then-Sen. Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard Sessions Senate outlook slides for GOP Supreme Court blocks order that relaxed voting restrictions in Alabama Justice Dept. considering replacing outgoing US attorney in Brooklyn with Barr deputy: report MORE (R-Ala.), the 33-year-old White House aide is to the right of several Republican senators on immigration.

“I hope that he’s got more voices than that one in his ear on these issues, because, yeah, I think it’s important that he get a whole perspective and range of opinions,” said Sen. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneClash looms over next coronavirus relief bill Trump second-term plans remain a mystery to GOP Republicans fear backlash over Trump's threatened veto on Confederate names MORE (S.D.), the No. 2 Senate Republican.

Pressed on who else the president should also be listening to, Thune added with a chuckle, “Some of them are now gone.”

Sen. John CornynJohn CornynChamber of Commerce endorses Cornyn for reelection George Floyd and the upcoming Texas Democratic Senate runoff Senators push foreign media to disclose if they are registered as foreign agents MORE (Texas), a member of GOP leadership, said Miller appears to be the “guy behind the curtain.”

“I think what we need is a consistent message because I think there are some voices in the White House who are working counter to that message and particularly creating more problems for the administration by losing senior leadership,” Cornyn said when asked if he had concerns about Miller’s growing influence.

The musical chairs atop DHS, and broader concerns that the department could move further to the right on immigration, isn’t the first time Miller has sparked ire from Senate Republicans. He has had a hand in some of the most controversial policies emanating from the White House.

And before that, while working for Sessions in the Senate, he fought against the 2013 Gang of Eight immigration bill that died in the GOP-controlled House.

Reports that Miller wants to oust Lee Cissna, head of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), are putting him at odds with Sen. Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyClash looms over next coronavirus relief bill Trump says GOP 'flexible' on convention plans Overnight Defense: House Dems offer M for Army to rename bases | Bill takes aim at money for Trump's border wall | Suspect in custody after shooting at Marine training facility  MORE (R-Iowa). The GOP senator called acting White House chief of staff Mick MulvaneyMick MulvaneyMulvaney: Trump faces difficulty if 2020 election becomes 'referendum' on him Consumer bureau revokes payday lending restrictions Supreme Court ruling could unleash new legal challenges to consumer bureau MORE this week to make the case for keeping Cissna, a former Grassley staffer, and Kathy Nuebel Kovarik, who is head of policy and strategy at USCIS and previously worked for Grassley on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“I know Cissna well. I know Kathy Kovarik well. They’re qualified people. They are good for the president,” Grassley said. “I heard that they were going to be dismissed and that irritates me.”

Grassley added that he could “be suspicious” of Miller’s intentions; however, he had only heard a “rumor” of Miller’s involvement in further high-level personnel changes at DHS.

But Grassley also questioned Miller's ability to counsel Trump on immigration.

“I don’t know whether he’s been an effective adviser for the president,” Grassley said.

ADVERTISEMENT

The concerns about Miller’s ascension come after Trump announced that Nielsen would be leaving, and after the White House withdrew Ron Vitiello’s nomination to lead Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), a decision that has mystified lawmakers.

The administration pushed back Tuesday against concerns that Nielsen’s exit signaled the start of a larger reshuffling at DHS, which has been a source of frustration at the White House for months.

Trump bristled on Tuesday at the notion that he is trying to institute widespread staff changes, telling reporters at the White House, “I never said I’m cleaning house.”

A senior administration official later repeated the president’s position but didn’t rule out additional staffing changes.

There’s been “a lot of misinformation as to why things are changing,” the official said, while adding that there are ongoing talks about concerns at DHS and USCIS, “although that’s not to say that situations can’t be rehabilitated.”

Later that day, DHS acting Deputy Secretary Claire Grady offered her resignation.

The back-to-back moves have increased speculation that Trump is seeking to shake up his team amid anger over the spike in migrant families crossing the southern border. Trump put hard-line immigration rhetoric and promises of building a border wall at the heart of his 2016 campaign, but his proposals have run into hurdles both on Capitol Hill and in the courts.

Sen. Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonRomney, Collins, Murkowski won't attend GOP convention Grassley won't attend GOP convention amid coronavirus uptick Trump second-term plans remain a mystery to GOP MORE (R-Wis.), the chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, said he reached out to Mulvaney this week to raise concerns about DHS.

“I’ve expressed publicly my concerns about the growing leadership void and also the growing number of people performing their duties in an acting capacity. But he indicated to me that the intention is to name nominees and have them go through the confirmation process,” Johnson said, referring to his talk with Mulvaney.

He added that Mulvaney did not provide clarity about reports that Miller and others are trying to force out additional DHS officials, but that it was his impression that Trump “was not necessarily happy” about the direction of the department.

“There may be more personnel changes, but again I think it’s more driven by who the new secretary would want in those positions,” Johnson said.

GOP senators have been full of praise for Nielsen, who was confirmed in the Senate at the end of 2017 in a 62-37 vote.

Cornyn said he reached out to Nielsen to thank her for her work, adding that she had been “put through the ringer.”

“Churn is not helpful to [Trump] or to DHS,” Cornyn said. “It creates more churning and it takes more oxygen out of the environment.”

Sen. John KennedyJohn Neely KennedyMORE (R-La.) defended Trump’s ability to replace his Cabinet officials but ripped White House staff, who he said had offered “classless,” “anonymous” attacks on Nielsen after her resignation was announced.

“Secretary Nielsen left … And then anonymous sources from the White House, White House staff, cut the secretary to pieces. I don’t think that was right,” Kennedy said. “I think the staff who did that to the secretary hurt their boss, and I thought it was classless.”

Jordan Fabian contributed.