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White House Personnel Director Tells Trump Top DHS Picks Are Ineligible

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 10/21/2019 Michelle Hackman, Andrew Restuccia
Ken Cuccinelli wearing a suit and tie © erik s. lesser/EPA/Shutterstock

WASHINGTON—The White House personnel office chief has told President Trump that his top two picks to fill the Homeland Security secretary job aren’t eligible under a federal law dictating who can fill the role without Senate confirmation, people familiar with the matter said.

Mr. Trump and many of his top immigration advisers favor Ken Cuccinelli or Mark Morgan for the job. Both men have only worked at DHS for the past few months but are ardent defenders of the president’s immigration policies on television. The previous acting secretary, Kevin McAleenan, submitted his resignation this month but will remain on the job through the end of the month.

Messrs. Cuccinelli and Morgan were installed in the spring after the White House pushed out several officials, including former DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, whom they felt were standing in the way of tougher immigration enforcement.

Mr. Cuccinelli heads the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency overseeing legal immigration and asylum applications, while Mr. Morgan leads Customs and Border Protection. Both men are serving on an acting basis, and neither has been nominated by Mr. Trump for permanent roles, which would require Senate confirmation.

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Sean Doocey, head of the White House Presidential Personnel Office, informed the president that, as a result, neither man is eligible to be elevated to the Department’s top job, according to the people. The federal statute that governs vacancies states that acting officials in cabinet-level positions must either be next in line for a position or hold a Senate-confirmed position.

Under a third option, the official being elevated must have served for at least 90 days in the past year under the previous secretary.

During the Friday meeting, Mr. Doocey brief the president on an opinion from the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, that the past secretary was Ms. Nielsen, not Mr. McAleenan, the people familiar with the meeting said.

The meeting with Mr. Trump on Friday included Stephen Miller, a top adviser to the president, and Emma Doyle, deputy chief of staff, the people said.

An administration official said the president hopes to announce his next acting DHS secretary in the next few days. Another White House official said the administration doesn’t intend for that person to serve for as long as Mr. McAleenan did.

The White House didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

The White House is considering Chad Wolf, Ms. Nielsen’s former chief of staff, as acting secretary, administration officials said. Mr. Miller is said to be supportive of Mr. Wolf’s appointment. In February, Mr. Wolf was nominated to serve as the department’s undersecretary for policy.

The White House is also considering David Pekoske, the Transportation Security Administration head who is serving as acting deputy DHS secretary, and Chris Krebs, head of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, according to administration officials. Mr. Pekoske has already indicated to DHS colleagues that he doesn’t want the top job, though, and would prefer to return to the TSA full-time, according to a person familiar with the matter.

Write to Michelle Hackman at Michelle.Hackman@wsj.com and Andrew Restuccia at Andrew.Restuccia@wsj.com

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