WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A union representing U.S. immigration and customs agents urged the Senate on Tuesday to block confirmation of President Donald Trump’s nominee to head the immigration enforcement agency, citing past racially tinged and controversial comments.
Acting director of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) Ronald Vitiello listens as U.S. Vice President Mike Pence delivers remarks at ICE headquarters in Washington, U.S., July 6, 2018. REUTERS/Leah Millis
The National Immigration and Customs Enforcement Council, which represents more than 7,000 agents, endorsed Trump in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. But it opposes the Republican president’s nomination of Ronald Vitiello to head the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency.
A letter from union President Chris Crane to the top Republican and Democrat on the Senate Homeland Security Committee, seen by Reuters, said the nominee “lacks the judgment and professionalism to effectively lead a federal agency.”
An ICE representative could not immediately be reached for comment.
The Senate committee is scheduled to vote on Wednesday on whether to approve Vitiello’s nomination and send it to the full Senate for a confirmation vote.
Vitiello, a former top Customs and Border Protection official, was named as ICE’s acting director in the summer, shortly after Trump ended a contentious policy of separating immigrant children from their parents at the border.
Vitiello could face some opposition from Democrats, particularly after he refused during his confirmation hearing on Nov. 15 to rule out reinstating the child separation policy.
“We will get less people bringing their children. So it is an option,” he said at the time.
Tuesday’s letter marked the first time the union has openly opposed the nomination of any presidential appointee. The union broke with its parent organization, the American Federation of Government Employees, when it endorsed Trump in 2016.
In the letter, Crane cited numerous concerns that ranged from allegations of whistleblower retaliation and lying to lawmakers during Vitiello’s confirmation process, to offensive tweets that Vitiello made while serving at Customs and Border Protection.
In one social media post, Vitiello suggested the Democratic Party should be renamed as “NeoKlanist,” a reference to the Ku Klux Klan white supremacist group, and in another Vitiello compared then-candidate Trump to the troublemaking Dennis the Menace newspaper comic character. At the time he did this, Crane wrote, Vitiello’s Twitter account showed him wearing a Border Patrol uniform.
Crane wrote that such comments violate official codes of conduct at the Department of Homeland Security and could jeopardize criminal cases that go to trial because they could be used by the defense to impeach ICE’s credibility.
“This type of conduct would result in a rank and file ICE employee being disciplined, if not possibly removed from employment,” Crane wrote.
“We are not aware that Mr. Vitiello was ever disciplined for his actions and instead of being demoted or fired, if confirmed as ICE Director, he will be promoted to the highest position in one of the nation’s largest law enforcement agencies,” the union president wrote.
Although an ICE official could not immediately be reached for comment on Tuesday, the department denied many of Crane’s allegations when he first leveled them in November ahead of Vitiello’s confirmation hearing. The nominee told lawmakers during the hearing that his tweet about the Democratic Party was a mistake.
“I was trying to make a joke,” Vitiello said at the time, adding that he thought he was sending it as a private direct message on Twitter rather than publicly on the social media platform, and that he deeply regretted it.
Whether the union’s opposition to Vitiello could move the needle enough to block him will largely turn on how Republicans respond. Republicans hold 53 Senate seats, and only a simple majority in the 100-seat chamber is needed to approve a nomination.
Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; editing by Jonathan Oatis
McCabe says ‘it’s possible’ Trump’s a Russian asset
McCabe has said in the past that the FBI had a good reason to open up a counterintelligence investigation into whether Trump was working with Russia and a possible national security threat.
The former official was on CNN’s “Anderson Cooper 360” when he was asked if he believes Trump may still be a Russian asset. He said he’s “anxious” to see the conclusion of special prosecutor Robert Mueller’s investigation.
He was also asked if he believes Trump is fit to serve and said it is not up to him to make the determination.
Gowdy challenges McCabe’s claim congressional leaders didn’t object to Russia counterintelligence probe
Former congressman and Fox News contributor Trey Gowdy disputed former acting FBI director Andrew McCabe’s claim Tuesday that congressional leaders didn’t object to the bureau’s counterintelligence investigation over President Trump’s Russia ties.
“The reason he’s doing it this way is that [Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif.] and [former House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis.] are not allowed to discuss anything that’s said in a ‘Gang of Eight’ meeting and McCabe knows that,” Gowdy said on “The Story with Martha MacCallum.” “So he can level the accusation and Devin and Paul cannot refute him.” Nunes chaired the House Intelligence Committee from 2015-19.
McCabe, in an appearance on NBC’s “Today” show Tuesday morning, said no members of the “Gang of Eight,” a bipartisan group of House and Senate leaders, including Nunes and Ryan, objected to the investigation.
“I told Congress what we had done,” McCabe told Savannah Guthrie.
“Did anyone object?” Guthrie asked.
“That’s the important part here, Savannah,” McCabe replied. “No one objected. Not on legal grounds, not on constitutional grounds and not based on the facts.”
Gowdy, formerly a member of the House Judiciary Committee, said he believed McCabe wasn’t telling the truth and that Nunes and Ryan did not know about a second investigation.
“There were three investigations into a duly elected president. The Peter Strzok one from July of 2016 and then McCabe started a counterintelligence [probe] and if he’s telling the truth, started a criminal probe into the president of the United States,” Gowdy told Martha MacCallum.
“I listened to Devin and Paul quiz the [Justice Department] and the FBI for hours on multiple occasions about the one counterintelligence investigation, we all knew about it. I find it stunning that they would know about a second one and not say a single solitary word.”
Gowdy also addressed former FBI Director James Comey’s May 2017 firing and McCabe’s belief that the president was trying to shut down the Russia investigation.
“If thinking that Jim Comey is not a good FBI director is tantamount to being an agent of Russia then just list all the people that are agents of Russia. [Senate Minority Leader] Chuck Schumer, [House Speaker] Nancy Pelosi, [Deputy Attorney General] Rod Rosenstein…,” Gowdy said.
Fox News’ Martha MacCallum contributed to this report.
Trump, Giuliani deny president tried obstructing Michael Cohen investigation
President Trump’s attorney, Rudolph Giuliani, denied a New York Times report that Trump asked then-Acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker whether U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman, a presidential ally, could be put in charge of the investigation into alleged wrongdoing by Trump’s onetime personal attorney Michael Cohen.
“The president said today he had no such conversation with the acting AG, and I believe Mr. Whitaker issued a statement to the same effect,” Giuliani said in a statement late Tuesday. “The rest of the piece is just a regurgitation of previously refuted obstruction theories. They all fail as obstruction because as [Harvard Law] Professor [Alan] Dershowitz’s recent book and many other authorities make clear, all of the alleged actions were within the president’s sole discretion under Article II of the U.S. Constitution.”
The Times report said that Whitaker told Trump that he could not put Berman in charge of the Cohen investigation because he had already recused himself from that matter. The paper claimed that Trump “soured” on Whitaker and “complained about his inability to pull levers at the Justice Department that could make the president’s many legal problems go away.”
Trump denied the story at the White House Tuesday afternoon, referring to the Times report as “more fake news” and saying that he had a “very good” relationship with Whitaker, who was replaced last week by William Barr.
“I have a lot of respect for Mr. Whitaker. I think he’s done a great job,” Trump said. He said Whitaker was “a very fine man, and he should be given a lot of thanks by our nation.”
Justice Department spokesperson Kerri Kupec referred to testimony Whitaker gave to the House Judiciary Committee earlier this month.
“Under oath to the House Judiciary Committee, then-Acting Attorney General Whitaker stated that ‘at no time has the White House asked for nor have I provided any promises or commitments concerning the special counsel’s investigation or any other investigation,'” Kupec said. “Mr. Whitaker stands by his testimony.”
Berman was named acting U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York in January 2018 by the AG at that time, Jeff Sessions. Berman was appointed to the position indefinitely by the panel’s judges three months later.
Prosecutors in the Southern District say Trump directed Cohen to make illegal hush-money payments to two women — adult film star Stormy Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal — in order to keep them quiet about alleged sexual encounters with them dating back more than a decade and coming soon after he’d married his current wife, Melania. Cohen is scheduled to report to prison next month to begin a three-year sentence after pleading guilty this past August to campaign finance and other violations.
Cohen is also scheduled to appear before the House Intelligence Committee on Feb. 28. His attorney, Lanny Davis, has said that Cohen also plans to testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee and the House Oversight Committee before the end of this month. In November, Cohen pleaded guilty to lying under oath to the Senate Intelligence Committee as part of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s ongoing investigation into alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian officials.
Fox News’ John Roberts and Jake Gibson contributed to this report.
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