Conservatives Push Immigration Hawk Cuccinelli for DHS Head
The faces on the right often stay the same while titles change in the Trump era. Hence the latest news that President Trump is considering former Virginia attorney general and longtime conservative sojourner Ken Cuccinelli to become his next Homeland Security secretary.
Cuccinelli is in the running to succeed ousted DHS Chief Kirstjen Nielsen, reportedly competing for the job with current Department of Energy Secretary Rick Perry and former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach.
Major qualifications for the position are simple. Frustrated by a rise in illegal crossings along the southern U.S. border, Trump wants an immigration hardliner. Conservatives are convinced Cuccinelli fits the bill.
In a letter postmarked for Friday and obtained by RealClearPolitics, 19 outside conservative organizations urged the president to pick Cuccinelli. Longtime Trump boosters, including former South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, Brent Bozell of the Media Research Center, and Ginni Thomas -- the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas -- lent their signatures.
“In this time of national crisis and emergency over national security and immigration, Ken’s background as a no-nonsense law enforcement officer and a major constitutional lawyer, along with his reputation as a fighter, combined with his extensive media experience, including television, make him ideally suited to carry out the duties of the Department of Homeland Security and your immigration agenda,” the letter reads.
Cuccinelli has all the prerequisites for the Trump Cabinet, whose members regularly double as cable TV guests. He is tough on crime, hawkish on the border, and an articulate, often feisty, interviewee. The longtime lawyer regularly made the cable news circuit to defend the president before signing with CNN in 2017 as a legal commentator.
A combative Cuccinelli notably caught flak there for clashing with Ana Navarro. During a shouting match over Trump’s immigration policies, he told the former Republican strategist and current co-host of “The View” that he was “sick and tired of listening to your shrill voice in my ears.”
That kind of pugilistic punditry likely appeals to the president, and Trump has experienced it firsthand. As a Virginia delegate, Cuccinelli engineered an effort at the 2016 Republican National Convention to force a debate on the nominating rules. It failed.
Party holdouts had hoped a roll-call vote would either embarrass the presumptive nominee or deny him the nomination altogether. The plan fell apart when Arkansas Rep. Steve Womack called a voice vote instead before hurrying off the podium to escape an outcry from angry delegates. Cuccinelli threw down his credentials in disgust.
He later promised to support the nominee, and in the years since Cuccinelli has become a trusted ally of the president. A senior administration official confirmed to RCP that the 2013 Republican nominee for Virginia governor has earned the admiration of key Trump advisers Jared Kushner and Stephen Miller.
Cuccinelli made several trips to the White House ahead of the Senate vote on criminal justice reform earlier this year and also met with skeptical Republicans in Congress to push the Kushner-backed First Step Act. He would later herald its passage as “historic,” describing it as a move toward “redemption in the federal criminal justice system.”
His record as an immigration hardliner is more extensive, going back to his time as an Old Dominion lawmaker and attorney general. The liberal editorial board of the Washington Post bemoaned his candidacy for governor, pointing to his opposition to birthright citizenship, his authorization of lawsuits against employers who hire illegal immigrants, and his support of efforts to block immigrants from collecting unemployment benefits.
Cuccinelli lost that 2013 race but his record won him devotion from others tough on illegal immigration. Supporters and critics note that there is little ideological daylight between Cuccinelli and Miller, the aide reportedly responsible for the purge of Nielsen at DHS.
Kushner and Miller have not backed any potential nominee. And Kobach, who is also in the running and who knows Trump personally, is as much of an immigration hawk.
Cuccinelli’s admirers include Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who recruited him during his 2016 presidential campaign and who described him to RCP as “a patriot.”
“Our broken immigration system and years of unwillingness to secure our southern border has produced a security and humanitarian crisis. With his loyalty to the Constitution and extensive legal experience, Ken is well equipped to address this crisis and would be an exceptional Secretary of Homeland Security,” Cruz said in a statement.
Among Cuccinelli’s detractors is Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who asked Republicans to head off problematic nominees before they are tapped by the president. According to Politico, the Kentucky Republican singled him out by name.
The two have been crossways since at least 2014 when Cuccinelli joined the Senate Conservative Fund, a political action committee that supported a primary challenge to McConnell.
Whoever gets the nod at DHS, Trump confidant and North Carolina Rep. Mark Meadows told RCP, must be “someone who will address the inherent barriers that exist, which keep our communities from being safe.”
“There is a crisis at the border,” he continued, “and it needs to be addressed in crisis mode.”