The Justice Department is facing a likely senior staff exodus once President Donald Trump taps a permanent replacement for ousted Attorney General Jeff Sessions, creating a leadership vacuum that has troubled hard-line immigration activists.
According to more than a half-dozen former and current administration officials, at least four top officials — mostly Sessions loyalists — have either quit or are eyeing the exit as they await Trump’s decision on who will succeed their former boss, who implemented and vigorously defended even Trump’s most controversial immigration policies.
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Among those leaving are Danielle Cutrona, a senior counsel to Sessions who had been with him since his Senate days. She departed DOJ last Friday. Rachael Tucker, a senior counselor to the attorney general, could also exit “in the next couple of months,” citing her fidelity to Sessions, or possibly take another job within the agency, said two sources close to the situation. Acting Assistant Attorney General Jeff Wood, another former Sessions Senate staffer, may also soon make an exit, according to one senior administration official.
And while the White House could find another strident immigration hawk to lead DOJ and name ideologically similar aides, several of the names being floated for attorney general — such as former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and George H.W. Bush-era Attorney General Bill Barr — represent a more GOP establishment line on the subject.
It’s a situation that conservatives who support reduced immigration have long feared. Even Trump’s critics concede that Sessions’ staff has dutifully guided the president’s hard-line immigration policies, propped up the president’s most contested executive actions and added a record number of adjudicators to U.S. immigration courts. Sessions also made headlines for his defense of the administration’s decision to separate migrant children from parents who have crossed the border illegally.
More recently, Sessions personally guided the White House as Trump attempted to dramatically limit asylum applications, removing some language in the process and ultimately signing off on the new rule, according to two DOJ officials.
“For better or for worse, you cannot say [Sessions] has not had a very profound impact,” said Leon Fresco, head of the DOJ’s Office of Immigration Litigation under President Barack Obama.
“He’s been a guiding force in moving both the DOJ and the Department of Homeland Security to draft and implement some of the most restrictive rules on immigration,” he added.
A DOJ leadership void could leave DHS to take up the immigration mantle, a prospect that worries advocates of stricter border laws, many of whom have been disappointed in current DHS chief Kirstjen Nielsen’s performance. While DHS has the power to enforce immigration policies — a topic Trump recently claimed Nielsen could be “much tougher” on — DOJ is the agency that can set uncompromising rules.
And DHS may soon be poised to get a more pugnacious leader on the subject, increasing the chance that the agency asserts itself more on topics like border crossings. Trump is considering replacing Nielsen with Thomas Homan, a tough-talking lawman who once recommended charging so-called sanctuary-city politicians “with crimes.”
“Depending on who is named DHS secretary, some leadership may shift back over to the person in that role,” said Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the conservative Center for Immigration Studies.
Without Sessions and his cohort of aides atop the agency, immigration hard-liners are wondering whether his protégé, senior White House policy adviser Stephen Miller, can stay the course on the administration’s effort to remake decades of immigration policy by boosting border enforcement and immigration prosecutions and challenging states that refuse cooperation with federal immigration authorities.
“Everyone involved on immigration issues has witnessed a long list of things that got done” under Sessions, said Vaughan. A fan of Sessions, Vaughan griped about the lack of an “obvious candidate” to take control of the agency if the president wants immigration to continue to be one of its highest-priority issues.
The uncertainty surrounding Trump’s pick for attorney general, combined with growing expectations that the White House won’t announce its nominee until mid-December at the earliest, has left some fifth-floor staffers feeling as though they’re in limbo, wondering whether it’s time to leave the administration or worth the wait to see who takes over as attorney general. Sessions has encouraged his loyalists to stick around to see who might take over for him.
Although Cutrona has already left DOJ, several other senior leaders eyeing the door are expected to stick around long enough to ensure “a smooth transition,” said one senior administration official, who claimed staffers who have been at the agency since Trump’s inauguration are “burnt out.” And a DOJ spokesperson said Tucker “plans to stay [and] may take on a different role,” though such a move has yet to be finalized or announced.
Matthew Whitaker, Sessions’ former chief of staff, has taken over as acting attorney general, but multiple sources said they doubt Trump will nominate Whitaker to take over permanently. Whitaker’s appointment has also been challenged by Democratic lawmakers and conservative legal scholars, including George Conway, the husband of White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, who argue that Trump illegally evaded the normal DOJ line of succession. The White House has justified its decision by pointing to the Vacancies Reform Act, which allows the president to temporarily fill most empty executive branch positions.
To replace Whitaker, the White House is looking at a slate of candidates. In addition to Christie and Barr, Trump is eyeing Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, outgoing Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi and Solicitor General Noel Francisco. Mark Filip, a deputy attorney general during the George W. Bush administration, is another option. McClatchy also reported that the White House had discussed the job with Janice Rogers Brown, a retired D.C. circuit judge and former California Supreme Court justice.
“[Sessions] would want them to stay there and do their job if they really enjoy it,” said a source close to the former attorney general, adding that “some are still going to feel that out of a sense of loyalty [they] need to leave.”