In this March 30, 2012 photo, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents take a suspect into custody as part of a nationwide immigration sweep in...
Gregory Bull

Why did Trump dump his own nominee to lead ICE?

At a White House event last summer to honor ICE and Customs and Border Protection officials, Donald Trump took a moment to single out Ron Vitiello, the acting ICE director, for praise. The president said Vitiello was doing a “great job.”

Evidently, that positive impression did not last.

President Donald Trump has withdrawn his nomination of Ron Vitiello to lead U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, choosing instead to go with a nominee who would chart the critical immigration agency “in a tougher direction.”

“We’re going in a little different direction. Ron is a good man, but we’re going in a tougher direction. We want to go in a tougher direction,” Trump told reporters Friday morning ahead of a trip to the U.S.-Mexico border, when asked about reports that Vitiello’s nomination to lead ICE had been withdrawn. […]

The decision about Vitiello was unexpected, and confusion surrounded the circumstances.

How much confusion? On Friday, when the president was headed to California for a border event, Vitiello was supposed to join Trump – but he was uninvited at the last minute.

The Washington Post added that the acting ICE chief was “blindsided” by the move, and he wasn’t alone: “The decision to ditch Vitiello stupefied Homeland Security officials and lawmakers. Some ICE officials and Senate aides were so taken aback, they told reporters they thought the White House had made a clerical error.”

Many in the Department of Homeland Security were “baffled” by the developments.

Let’s also not overlook the context in which this unfolded: Trump believes there’s a dangerous crisis underway at the country’s southern border. It’s against this backdrop that the president decided to scrap the nomination of his own handpicked ICE director, apparently without warning, and two days later, he accepted Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen’s resignation.

So, what in the world happened?

There was some grumbling on the right about Vitiello, because he’d tweeted some criticisms of Trump ahead of the 2016 election. Of course, if that were automatically disqualifying, Trump could’ve ditched him months ago.

The official explanation – the president now wants to go in a “tougher” direction – isn’t much better, since no one can say with confidence what that even means. It’s not even clear the White House has any kind of coherent strategy in mind for the border at all.

Ultimately, the ICE nominee apparently lacked the proper allies. The Washington Post reported, “Trump had vacillated on Vitiello for several months after hearing complaints from senior adviser Stephen Miller, ICE union boss Chris Crane and others, according to White House aides who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal deliberations.”

The behind-the-scenes lobbying apparently worked, even if it reinforced impressions of a chaotic and dysfunctional West Wing.