Mark Morgan started as the acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement on Tuesday, having previously been fired as head of Border Patrol. | Cliff Owen/AP Photo
After being fired early in Trump’s tenure, Mark Morgan took to Fox News — and caught the president’s eye.
Mark Morgan just took over a job that few people in President Donald Trump’s orbit wanted him to get. It’s also a job few people wanted to take.
On Tuesday, Morgan started as the acting director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a role he’s expected to take over permanently in the coming weeks. The appointment caps a remarkable political comeback for an Obama-era official who alienated both Border Patrol officials and conservative activists and was even labeled a “disgrace” in a Breitbart op-ed accusing him of “running scared” on immigration enforcement.Story Continued Below
Morgan, a former Marine who ran U.S. Border Patrol at the end of the Obama administration, has clawed his way back with a series of Fox News appearances in which he lavished praise on the president, including an early January appearance Trump watched in which Morgan defended Trump’s push for a wall along the southern border. “The president is right,” Morgan told Fox host Tucker Carlson.
But while the segments won Trump over, Morgan remains an unwelcome figure to some White House allies and to some of the immigration officials he is set to lead. While Morgan’s defenders point to his law enforcement background and say he is respectful and highly capable, the early grumbling about his appointment underscores the intense pressure Trump officials continue to face on the highly politicized issue of immigration. Trump has purged several of his top immigration officials in recent months, saying he wanted to go in a “tougher direction.” But filling those positions with uniformly lauded candidates has proved difficult.
Conversations with sixteen current and former officials who spoke with POLITICO about the president’s choice to lead ICE revealed serious skepticism. Many aren’t convinced Morgan is a genuine immigration hardliner and that his Fox News hits were merely opportunism. Others wonder whether Morgan — a former FBI investigator with limited immigration experience — understands the complexities of domestic immigration enforcement. He’ll also have to go to great lengths to earn the trust of the immigration officials he once turned off during his time as Obama’s Border Patrol chief.
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“I have never seen a person do a 180 so quickly,” a former ICE official said of Morgan’s comments on Fox. “If you look at the public statements he was making when he first came on as head of [the Border Patrol], and you look at the stuff he’s been saying on Fox News you’re like, where did this guy come from?”
“It’s the complete opposite,” the person added.
To those who have worked with Morgan — and might again — the timing of his return to the public sector is no coincidence.
Just days after an appearance on Fox Business’ “Lou Dobbs Tonight,” in which Morgan commended Trump for telling Mexico to “get off the sidelines” and send assistance to the border, he was informed that the White House was seriously considering him for the top spot at ICE, according to an administration official with knowledge of the conversation. The same official said Morgan was recommended to Trump by Tom Homan, who retired as acting ICE director in April 2018 but still speaks with the president often.
But unlike Homan, who rose to acting ICE director after a lengthy career in immigration enforcement, Morgan will be entering an insular environment as an outsider once he’s permanently confirmed by the Senate. He’ll also have to fend off calls from Democratic activists to abolish his agency altogether.
“Mark is going to have to let ICE know that he’s 100 percent on their side on his first day and even if he does that, he still has a long road ahead before he fully overcomes the stigma of being ex-FBI,” said a former DHS official who spoke with Morgan recently.
Morgan and the Department of Homeland Security did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Mark Morgan led the U.S. Border Patrol at the end of the Obama administration. | Alex Brandon/AP Photo
Morgan’s first stint in immigration enforcement began and ended in controversy.
When President Barack Obama tapped Morgan to lead USBP in 2016, the 21-year FBI veteran became the agency’s first outsider chief. Though Morgan had worked on an FBI-led Hispanic gang task force at the bureau’s Los Angeles field office, and temporarily served in internal affairs at U.S. Customs and Border Protection, he lacked the traditional qualifications that his predecessors had obtained as Border Patrol agents out on the front lines.
“Institutionally, it was kind of difficult for [the USBP] to look at somebody who hadn’t come up through the ranks,” said a former DHS official who worked with Morgan. “He’s a professional, but he was walking into a very difficult situation.”
Some CBP employees thought of Morgan “as the internal affairs guy” during his time as Border Patrol chief, according to the former ICE official, who said his tenure was marked by “a lot of door-closing” and frustration throughout the agency.
Peter Hermansen, who served in USBP for two-plus decades before retiring, said his friends at the FBI had warned him that there “was a tinge of arrogance” about Morgan and that “he wasn’t particularly super well liked in the FBI community.” But in his limited dealings with him, Hermansen said he found Morgan “very receptive to what we were doing and how we were doing it.”
Some former colleagues said Morgan was also a good listener, showed a genuine appreciation for his peers — “He made one comment to me that he even loved the Border Patrol more so than his fellow FBI agents,” recalled Ron Colburn, who served as deputy chief of the Border Patrol in the mid-2000s — and successfully modernized internal affairs at CBP.
“He’s got tremendous personal integrity, he’s a very hard worker. … I was sorry he did not remain in the position of chief of the Border Patrol,” said Gil Kerlikowske, an Obama appointee who first hired Morgan to manage internal affairs when he was head of U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
However, Morgan never won over Brandon Judd, the Trump-friendly head of USBP’s powerful labor union. A trove of recently unearthed emails show Judd chastising Morgan shortly before Trump took office for trying to “drag the Patrol through the mud.”
“You’ve politicized your position more than any of your predecessors,” Judd wrote to Morgan at the time, according to emails published by Axios this month. Judd, who did not return a request for comment, turned the National Border Patrol Council’s executive board against Morgan as well — a development that led to Morgan’s involuntary departure from the Trump administration in Jan. 2017. Judd, however, has denied directly asking Trump to fire Morgan.
“The chief Obama gave us is a disgrace,” read a Breitbart op-ed by the NBPC board in late November 2016. The blistering critique focused on a comment Morgan had made in congressional testimony in which he told lawmakers he supported “comprehensive immigration reform.”
According to the union, his statement was “directly contrary to President-elect Trump’s comments while on the campaign trail.”
Morgan was fired two months after the Breitbart op-ed published — a move he described at the time as “heartless” and “void of any decency,” according to leaked emails. Two people close to Morgan said the emails suggested he still has enemies inside or close to the Trump administration, making him bound to face similar challenges as ICE director to those he encountered during his time at USBP.
“He had no idea who leaked them, but it’s clear that someone doesn’t want this to happen,” said the formal official who speaks with Morgan often, referring to his confirmation.
At ICE, Morgan’s FBI past may pose some challenges because of a sharp rivalry and distrust between the two agencies. The FBI, as the nation’s top law enforcement agency, frequently overlaps with ICE’s domestic enforcement efforts.
“There are certain parts of the country where FBI and ICE do not have a functional partnership,” said one of the former DHS officials.
A former ICE official said the feuding most often stems from jurisdictional issues: “The FBI thinks that they run everything, they’re the FBI, right? And so there’s a lot of back and forth between the two. ‘Well that’s our case,’ ‘no that’s my case,’ ‘no that’s our case.’”
The same official said ICE officials feel the FBI and DOJ too often receives the attention for bringing prominent cases, even if the tip originated from an ICE referral.
“DOJ always gets the credit, and the people at [ICE] are always pissed about that,” the person said.
An ICE spokesperson told POLITICO: “ICE often works hand-in-hand with FBI, particularly on criminal investigations and provides important support to the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Forces.”
Morgan has also faced charges of opportunism, with critics pointing to his appearances on Fox News — a channel Trump watches daily and has been known to pull talent from for senior roles inside his administration. Between January and May of this year, Morgan appeared on either Fox News or Fox Business 80 times, according to The Huffington Post, and often on programs hosted by Trump’s favorite hosts: Carlson, Dobbs and the “Fox and Friends” trio.
“He really liked being on TV and Fox kept inviting him back so he kept saying things a little more crazier to keep getting invited back on. Things kind of spiraled and pretty soon he realized that he was on a short list for [the ICE] nomination,” said the former ICE official.
“Why not go for it?” the official added.
But Morgan’s prolific on-air presence didn’t exclusively land him the nomination. Three people familiar with the process said he was chosen, in part, because Trump had exhausted his other options.
The president dumped his original nominee, Ronald Vitiello, amid a broader DHS shake-up in mid-April and tapped deputy ICE director Matthew Albence to take over in the interim. Albence was favored by top administration officials, including top White House immigration aide Stephen Miller, to remain in the post permanently. But he was passed over after telling people he plans to retire within a year.
Other ICE officials who might have once been interested in taking over the agency were reluctant to put their names in the hat after witnessing the personal threats that Homan and his family endured during his tenure. Trump’s sudden reversal on Vitiello’s nomination, which came without much notice to his own officials and Capitol Hill, also turned off some potential candidates.
“Ron’s a good man, but we’re going in a tougher direction,” Trump abruptly informed reporters before leaving for a trip to the border on April 5.
So Trump and acting DHS Secretary Kevin McAleenan eventually landed on Morgan, whose “depth of experience” they described as an asset to the department.
“He will do a great job!” Trump tweeted at the time of the announcement, which surprised White House aides and DHS officials.
“Kevin McAleenan is a supporter of Morgan’s [and] speaks very well of him,” said Alan Bersin, who served as CBP commissioner under Obama. McAleenan worked with Morgan when he was deputy commissioner of CBP at the end of the Obama administration.
One outstanding question is the timing of Morgan’s formal nomination. The White House has not formally submitted Morgan’s nomination to the Senate, preventing it from scheduling a confirmation hearing, and Trump previously declared that Albence would remain in place as acting director “pending the confirmation” of Morgan. The ICE spokesperson deferred to the White House in response to a question on this matter. The White House didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
In the meantime, Morgan will run the agency in an acting capacity, working to ingratiate himself with the staff. On his first day, Morgan held a video teleconference with field agents ahead of a town hall on Wednesday.
“I can assure you, he’s all in for ICE,” said the ICE spokesperson. “Even though he comes from the outside, he comes with more than 30 years of service for the United States government. He truly believes that there’s a crisis at the border and he’s willing to do what he can to work with Congress and to protect our national security.”
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