Ken Cuccinelli has spent years attacking Mitch McConnell and Senate Republicans. Now, it’s time for payback.
President Donald Trump wants Cuccinelli, who most recently led the anti-establishment Senate Conservatives Fund, to be director of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. But there may be nobody in Washington whom McConnell and his allies would take more pleasure in defeating, and the bottom line is Cuccinelli has little chance of getting approved for the job, Republican senators said.
“He’s spent a fair amount of his career attacking Republicans in the Senate, so it strikes me as an odd position for him to put himself in to seek Senate confirmation,” said Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, who ran the GOP’s campaign arm for two election cycles. “It’s unlikely he’s going to be confirmed if he is nominated.”
Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the Senate GOP’s chief vote-counter, called the bid “a long shot,” adding, “They’ll go forward with it or they won’t, but I will suspect he’ll have plenty of obstacles once he gets here.”
The nascent nomination fight is again pitting the president against his own party in Congress. Just this spring, because of strong and very public opposition from Senate Republicans, Trump yanked his two preferred picks for the Federal Reserve’s board of governors before they even had been formally nominated.
And immigration has been a particular sore spot: Every leadership position at the Department of Homeland Security related to immigration is filled only by people serving in an acting capacity — and White House officials are mulling the prospect of having Cuccinelli do the same.
And immigration has been a particular sore spot: Every leadership position at the Department of Homeland Security related to immigration is filled only by an individual serving in an acting capacity — and White House officials are mulling the prospect of having Cuccinelli do the same.
Some senators are still hoping to persuade Trump not to formally nominate or appoint Cuccinelli, but if the president goes through with it, the former Virginia attorney general likely will be either rejected or blocked from a floor vote entirely.
White House officials said Cuccinelli, always spoiling for a fight, is enthusiastic about another clash with McConnell. In a statement for this story, Cuccinelli showed no signs of backing down.
“My focus right now is on achieving President Trump’s immigration goals. It would certainly be my hope that senators’ primary interest is in the accomplishment of policy rather than politics,” he said.
The pushback against Trump’s attempt to install an immigration hard-liner to run the country’s legal immigration system is the climax of Senate Republicans’ yearslong battle with Cuccinelli and his organization, which has tried to oust GOP incumbents in favor of more conservative challengers. Cuccinelli joined in 2014, shortly after McConnell trounced Senate Conservatives Fund-backed opponent.
Cuccinelli also has taken aim at some of the senators needed to confirm him — calling on McConnell to resign as majority leader, backing Roy Moore in Alabama’s Senate race to the chagrin of the GOP rank and file, and criticizing the record of Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) as a “major disappointment.”
“You’re always held to what you’ve said,” Burr said when reminded of Cuccinelli’s criticisms.
Though Cuccinelli was initially slated to be the Trump administration’s immigration czar, a position the president considered creating to oversee and coordinate immigration policy, the White House changed plans in late May. And even if he never actually takes charge at USCIS, White House officials said simply being discussed for a position that requires Senate confirmation could lend additional heft to an alternative role.
Trump has occasionally floated contentious appointments to Senate Republicans — including McConnell — with no intention of nominating the individuals, according to sources familiar with his remarks. He’d then tell aides he was doing so only to make subsequent nominees seem more palatable.
Whether the president is dangling Cuccinelli’s nomination in the same spirit is unclear, but Trump officials signaled his elevation after McConnell publicly panned Cuccinelli in remarks to reporters in April.
On Tuesday, McConnell reiterated in a brief interview his strong “lack of enthusiasm” for Cuccinelli.
“It seems to me to be very difficult [to confirm him], based upon what I have read that McConnell says. I get the opinion that McConnell is not going to bring it up,” Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said. “So if McConnell’s not going to bring it up, it ain’t going to come up.”
Grassley predicted Cuccinelli will be temporarily installed in an acting role. If Trump wants to avoid a fight with the Senate GOP, he may seek to install Cuccinelli at USCIS in an acting capacity, according to two current and former DHS officials with knowledge of the process.
Cuccinelli’s elevation itself is a blow to Grassley, whose former staffer Francis Cissna was ousted from USCIS despite Grassley’s pleas to keep him amid Trump’s broader purge of the Department of Homeland Security.
Grassley said Cissna was “trying to do everything Trump wants done but doing it in a lawful way. It seems to me we’re a government based on the rule of law. You ought to respect people who are trying to abide by it.”
USCIS, which oversees the country’s immigration and naturalization system, is led by acting Director Mark Koumans, who took the helm this month after Cissna was pushed out. The possibility that Cuccinelli could serve a long period of time as an acting official wouldn’t be unprecedented. Thomas Homan — a former ICE official — led that agency for a year and a half.
The Cuccinelli nomination reflects the persistent bind Trump has faced when it comes to immigration. Senate Republicans are reluctant to confirm the sorts of people who share his views, such as Cuccinelli and Kris Kobach, a former Kansas secretary of state who was considered as a replacement for former Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen.
Trump’s preferred Federal Reserve picks, Stephen Moore and Herman Cain, were scuttled by GOP resistance. And Cuccinelli could be headed for the same buzz saw, though one Senate Republican worried “then we get Kris Kobach, who’s probably worse.
“I don’t know why the president keeps putting these people out without just making a few phone calls and saying: ‘Can you confirm this person?’” the senator said.
Yet those like Nielsen who have gained Senate approval have quickly fallen out of favor with the president and his top immigration adviser, Stephen Miller.
And not all senators share leadership’s view. Some came to the Senate after the peak of Senate Conservatives Fund’s power earlier this decade.
“It’s the president’s call,” Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) said. “I do worry sometimes that we’re going in a direction more where the only people that can be considered for appointments, you have to be computers or live in a cocoon or have never been active. That’s not realistic.”
Cramer was one of the leading opponents of Cain’s elevation to the Fed, which cratered in April. But he said that job is different than USCIS: “It’s not just the person but the position you consider them for.”
Ted Hesson contributed to this report.