President Donald Trump is operating with a slimmed-down Cabinet following the announced departure of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, even as his declared “national emergency” at the U.S.-Mexico border heats up.
Nielsen, who helped Trump carry out the administration’s abusive family separation practice last year, was reportedly forced to tender her resignation Sunday amid frustrations from the president over her supposed unwillingness to crack down harder on immigration. Kevin McAleenan, previously the commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, is expected to be appointed in acting capacity in her stead, with Trump circumventing conventions and skipping over Deputy Secretary Claire Grady, who is next in line.
Trump is now managing the so-called “national emergency” — which he declared in February — with no permanent DHS secretary to carry out his demands. In his emergency declaration, Trump notably called the situation at the southern border “a security and humanitarian crisis that threatens core national security interests,” and has since threatened to halt all immigration into the country on several occasions, claiming without proof that migrants pose a danger to American citizens.
Given the administration’s high rate of turnover and Trump’s indifference toward the many vacant or temporary positions left unfilled, it’s possible McAleenan could be serving in acting capacity for some time.
The administration is currently operating with an acting DHS secretary, an acting defense secretary, an acting interior secretary, an acting White House chief of staff, an acting United Nations ambassador, and an acting Food and Drug Administration (FDA) commissioner.
Trump nominated acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt to serve permanently in his role last month, and nominated U.S. ambassador to Canada Kelly Knight Craft to the U.N. position in February, but the other positions remain filled by temporary leaders. There’s been no permanent defense secretary for more than two months, the longest that position has been vacant in 70 years.
Countless other vacancies remain across the leadership of most departments, some of which Trump has never filled, well into the third year of his administration.
Despite the significant responsibilities that fall on Cabinet members and other top positions, Trump has suggested he prefers to work with people who have not been properly confirmed by the Senate to permanent Cabinet positions. “I sort of like acting,” he told reporters in January. “It gives me more flexibility. Do you understand that? I like acting.”
This approach was of particular concern when Matthew Whitaker was appointed as acting attorney general last November, following former Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ forced resignation. Whitaker had been highly critical of special counsel Robert Mueller’s nearly two-year investigation into Russian election interference, and the sudden appointment left him in charge of that same probe, having never been vetted by the Senate.
Part of the reason Trump might prefer to avoid the hassle of properly filling such vacancies is because of how often he has to do it. Turnover across the administration has been unprecedented, significantly outpacing any recent presidency, both at the Cabinet level and among White House senior leadership.
The Brookings Institution has been closely monitoring the administration’s turnovers and has found that Trump has already had more cabinet-level departures three months into his third year than any recent president had in their entire first four years.
Several outlets have reported that White House aide Stephen Miller has aggressively been pushing for personnel changes so that the administration can bring in individuals who share its extreme views. Miller is said to have specifically objected to Nielsen not doing enough to stem the flow of immigration into the country, which reportedly contributed to her ouster.
Despite the fact that Republicans control the Senate, increasingly extreme nominees could create political obstacles to rubber-stamping every appointment. In contrast, “acting” leaders face no such public scrutiny and can continue to carry out the will of the administration.