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Why Ken Cuccinelli is persona non grata in the Senate

Trump tapped the Senate Conservatives Fund president in acting capacity for Citizenship and Immigration Services

Ken Cuccinelli has been named the acting head of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Ken Cuccinelli has been named the acting head of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

President Donald Trump’s decision to appoint Ken Cuccinelli to lead the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in only an acting capacity should be no surprise considering that he would appear to have no shot of Senate confirmation.

That is owed to his tenure as president of the Senate Conservatives Fund, a political action committee with a long track record of working against incumbent Republican senators, challenging them from the party’s right flank.

Mitch McConnell has filled the Senate with people like Lisa Murkowski, John McCain, Shelley Moore Capito, Lamar Alexander, and Dean Heller who all promised the voters they would repeal Obamacare, but when the time came to do it they refused,” Cuccinelli wrote in an August 2017 fundraising message for the fund. “Instead of admitting his mistake, McConnell is blaming the President for having ‘excessive expectations’ even though he was the one who set those expectations with years of empty promises!”

Four of the senators referenced in that one fundraising message are still serving in the current narrow, 53-47, GOP majority, and both the SCF and Cuccinelli, a former Virginia attorney general, have worked against a number of other Republicans now serving in the Senate.

Under Cuccinelli’s leadership, the Senate Conservatives Fund also endorsed Roy Moore for Senate in Alabama in a 2017 GOP primary runoff, over incumbent Sen. Luther Strange. Establishment Republicans backed Strange, who was appointed to the seat vacated when Jeff Sessions became attorney general.

The highly flawed Moore ended up losing the general election to Democrat Doug Jones

When Cuccinelli’s name surfaced as a possible nominee for secretary of Homeland Security earlier this year, McConnell, the Senate majority leader, went out of his way to tell reporters he had made clear to the White House his “lack of enthusiasm” for the Virginian.

Back in April, Josh Holmes, a Republican strategist and longtime McConnell political adviser, called Cuccinelli the only potential Trump nominee being floated at the time who had positively no chance of surviving a confirmation process.

“He has trash-talked, campaigned against, and demanded resignations from every single Republican who is currently in power,” Holmes said in a tweet, adding that the list included Trump and McConnell. 

In 2014, the Senate Conservatives Fund backed Matt Bevin in a Senate primary in Kentucky against McConnell. Cuccinelli became head of the fund after McConnell beat Bevin, but animus has stuck. Bevin has since gone on to win election to the governor’s office in the Bluegrass State. 

And in 2016, Cuccinelli angered the Trump team when he was a vocal leader in a coalition that demanded a roll call vote of the rules package at the GOP nominating convention. Back then, he was aware of the potential consequences. “They were telling people, ‘We’re going to ruin your political life,’” he said in Cleveland. 

While Cuccinelli is almost uniquely unpopular among many Republicans because of his political forays, he also won’t be very welcome in the House Homeland Security Committee, which oversees his agency.

Chairman Bennie Thompson of Mississippi greeted the appointment this way: “Mr. Cuccinelli is an anti-immigrant fringe figure that has no business leading a component that is supposed to administer our nation’s legal immigration system. Besides being a right-wing commentator, Cuccinelli is completely unqualified to the lead USCIS and likely wants to decimate the agency Congress charged with handling our immigration and refugee programs.”

As acting director, Cuccinelli will be responsible for leading an agency of 19,000 employees and contractors. The USCIS is responsible for processing and adjudicating legal immigration benefits and visas. In fiscal 2018, the agency adjudicated more than 8.7 million requests for immigration benefits.

Cuccinelli’s appointment is the latest DHS leadership shake-up by the Trump administration, as the president seeks to crack down on the influx of Central American migrants arriving at the southern border.

He also becomes the latest senior administration official to come aboard on an acting basis. Cuccinelli was formally named as the principal deputy director and designated as the acting director, Lawfare reported. Presumably, the new staff position of principal deputy director will supersede the deputy director for purposes of adhering to the Federal Vacancies Reform Act.

That move should allow him to serve in the acting capacity for an extended period, although exactly how long is unclear at this point. However, the law appears to prohibit him from being nominated to the job on a permanent basis.

Although the House has no role in the confirmation process, House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer summed up many Democrats’ — and some Republicans’ — complaints about Cuccinelli.

“Once again, this President is trying to circumvent Congress and our Constitution by appointing someone as acting head of an agency who would not be confirmed by the Senate to that post and who is grossly unqualified for it,” the Maryland Democrat said in a statement. 

In May, border agents apprehended 144,000 migrants at the southwest border, according to Customs and Border Protection.

That number is up 32 percent from April, and includes individuals who turned themselves in at or between ports of entry to seek asylum. May is the third consecutive month in which this total has surpassed 100,000.

Former USCIS Director Lee Cissna, who stepped down June 1 after leading the agency since October 2017, faced backlash during his time in office from pro-immigration groups and Democrats for the massive immigration case backlog that exceeded more than 800,000.

Cissna also was criticized for changing the agency’s mission statement, dropping the reference to a “nation of immigrants” and stressing “protecting Americans, securing the homeland.” He was also criticized for the proposed “public charge” rule that would affect individuals’ eligibility to become naturalized if they have used public benefits such as food stamps and Medicaid.

“I am honored to be given the opportunity to lead U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services at this critical time and serve alongside this agency’s dedicated workforce,” Cuccinelli said in a statement. “USCIS has the extraordinary responsibility to administer and protect the integrity of our nation’s lawful immigration system.”

Cuccinelli stated that the United States “has the most generous legal immigration system in the world and we must zealously safeguard its promise for those who lawfully come here.”

During his time as Virginia attorney general, according to a USCIS news release, Cuccinelli led the commonwealth in fighting human trafficking, enforcing laws against gangs, health care fraud and child predators. He also served in the state Senate from 2002 to 2010 and has practiced law for nearly 25 years.

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