Trump Upends Homeland Security Department in Mass Removal of Top Staff

Former Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen

Former Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen Kevin Wolf/AP

Experts and former officials call the bulk turnover unhealthy, unprecedented and "enormously disruptive."

President Trump on Monday executed a dramatic overhaul of leadership at the Homeland Security Department, adding several top officials and component chiefs to the list of top brass removed from their jobs in recent days.

The White House confirmed Randolph “Tex” Alles would step down as head of the Secret Service, just one day after Trump announced the resignation of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen. Several reports indicated L. Francis Cissna, head of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, as well as John Mitnick, the DHS general counsel, would also leave their jobs. Last week, Trump announced that he would withdraw from consideration his nominee to head Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Ron Vitiello, and instead take the department in a "tougher" direction.

Trump named Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan to serve as acting secretary of Homeland Security, leaving a temporary vacancy at CBP as well. The White House is also reportedly planning to remove Undersecretary for Management Claire Grady to clear the path for McAleenan’s appointment.

In addition, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, a component of Homeland Security, has been headed by Pete Gaynor in an acting capacity since Brock Long stepped down in March. The department is also without a Senate-confirmed deputy secretary, chief financial officer, inspector general and head of the Science and Technology directorate.

“I don’t think anything is like what we’ve seen today under the current administration,” said Jay Ahern, whose more than three decades in federal service included CBP’s head of the Office of Field Operations during the George W. Bush administration and acting CBP commissioner during the Obama administration. “Wholesale change, that’s not necessarily a healthy thing.”

Max Stier, president of the Partnership for Public Service, called the sudden and seemingly rash decisions “enormously disruptive” for the functioning of the department.

“On the surface of it, there was no preparation and that has consequences,” Stier said. “It will trickle out all the way throughout the organization.”

He added that “leaders matter,” and making leadership of the department front-page news “makes it harder for people inside the organization to focus on their jobs.”

The slew of departures also drew bipartisan criticism on Capitol Hill.

“In addition to congressional dysfunction, I am concerned with a growing leadership void within the department tasked with addressing some of the most significant problems facing the nation,” said Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., who chairs the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., Johnson’s homeland security counterpart in the House, called on the administration to quickly fill vacant positions.

"This could not come at a worse time for the day to day management of the Department of Homeland Security and the over 220,000 employees that need leadership in order to best help keep the country secure,” Thompson said. “The department will quickly need proven, Senate-confirmed leaders in place that can work with Congress in good faith to help keep the country safe and to fix the Trump-inflicted situation at the border."

Ahern said that while front-line employees will not necessarily feel the reverberations of “turmoil in the beltway” because of the relative stability of their missions, it could signal a change in direction for their day-to-day activities. And while many career employees have endured the pains of turnover and transition, Ahern suggested the lack of preparation and planning to ensure the continuity of operations was unprecedented.

“This just seems to be very chaotic and not part of any well thought out plan,” Ahern said. “That’s an awful lot of change at one particular point in time.”

Ahern, who spent more than a decade in the Senior Executive Service, said one consequence of the changes will be the relationships that many top career officials formed with political appointees will suddenly be “ripped away.” He added, however, that there are “an awful lot of resilient people” at the department to continue carrying out core functions.

Stier said the administration needs to act quickly to fill the now vacant positions in order to “create certainty and not questions and doubt.” In the meantime, however, he predicted the situation will only worsen.

“It’s not finished yet,” Stier said. “The turnover at the top inevitably leads to disruption across the organization.”

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