Almost a month after John Kelly left his post atop the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to become White House chief of staff, President Trump has yet to name his permanent replacement.
Deputy Secretary Elaine Duke — who is widely respected — has served as acting head of the department since Kelly’s departure at the end of July.
And while the names of a few possible successors have circulated around Washington, the White House has largely kept mum on what candidates the president is considering.
The Senate, which must vote to confirm the position, is out of town until after Labor Day — and has put a block on the president’s ability to make recess appointments — preventing any immediate action by the White House.
But for former department officials, the monthlong vacancy is concerning. The sprawling department is responsible for everything from counterterrorism efforts to immigration enforcement — and it’s the parent agency of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the country’s front-line responder to the Category 3 hurricane bearing down on Texas this weekend.
The department is also central to many of the president’s most high-profile campaign promises, like his vow to crack down on illegal immigration and domestic terror attacks.
“The White House understands that they need to get someone in that position quickly because if a terrorist attack were to occur without a leader at the helm of that department, they are vulnerable to the criticism that they’re asleep at the switch,” said a source close to the White House.
It’s unclear what exactly is delaying the nomination of a new secretary.
The White House, though, has been embroiled in crisis after crisis in the weeks since Kelly’s arrival — including an escalating game of rhetorical brinksmanship with North Korea and the president’s controversial response to the violence at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va.
In the meantime, the White House has insisted it has complete confidence in Duke.
“There's certainly someone at the helm [of DHS],” press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Thursday, referring to Duke.
Multiple GOP operatives with close ties to the White House said that it would be folly to name a successor to Kelly before the Senate returns, arguing that it would simply leave the candidate hanging in public as a target for Trump’s critics.
Another possible reason for the delay is that Energy Secretary Rick PerryRick PerryRepublicans are the 21st-century Know-Nothing Party College football move rocks Texas legislature Trump tries to spin failed Texas endorsement: 'This was a win' MORE was under “serious consideration” as recently as last week, according to the source close to the White House. But when Sen. Joe ManchinJoe ManchinK Street revenues boom Biden champions economic plan as Democrats scale back ambitions On The Money — Democrats eye tough choices as deadline looms MORE (D-W.Va.) publicly declined to fill his place at the Energy Department, that delayed any announcement of a new nominee.
A White House spokesperson declined to comment on personnel matters, but Sanders said Thursday that the administration is in “great shape” to tackle the response to Hurricane Harvey with Kelly in the White House.
The president’s eventual pick will send a clear signal both about his policy priorities for the department and his appetite for a bloody confirmation battle in the Senate.
The new nominee will come at a time of fractured relations between the White House and Capitol Hill. The president has spent weeks lobbing public attacks at prominent Senate Republicans — including Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellGOP blocks Senate Democrats' revised elections bill A politicized Supreme Court? That was the point The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Uber - Democrats optimistic after Biden meetings MORE (R-Ky.).
Duke is among those rumored to be under consideration to take on the post full-time — a relatively noncontroversial and bipartisan pick. The Senate voted overwhelmingly to confirm her as the No. 2 at the department in an 85-14 vote earlier this year.
She comes with nearly three decades of federal government experience, including stints at both DHS and the Department of Defense under Democratic and Republican presidents. At DHS, she managed the agency’s $47-billion budget, and as deputy assistant administrator for acquisition at the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). She is widely seen as competent and professional.
Several GOP operatives with close ties to the White House said that Thomas Homan, the acting director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), is another potential pick — and a far more controversial one.
Homan, who is reviled by immigration rights activists and praised by Trump's allies, has accompanied the president on Air Force One after the announcement of Kelly’s new role and is reportedly well-liked by the president.
Kris Kobach, the controversial Kansas secretary of State known for his hardline views on immigration, is a less serious candidate, the operatives said. Picking Kobach would ignite a firestorm on Capitol Hill and would almost certainly be a brutal confirmation battle — one on which the White House has little political capital to spend.
Kobach, a Republican, was floated as a potential pick prior to Kelly’s nomination earlier this year but faced fierce backlash over what critics saw as his championing of racist policies.
He is the principal author of Arizona’s strict immigration law, several parts of which were struck down by the Supreme Court in 2012. During the 2012 election, he advised Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney on the concept of “self-deportation."
House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas) was also considered in the mix earlier this year, but it’s unclear whether he is still interested in the post.