White House says changes to the 'bureaucracy' at DHS are ongoing, but won't include 'subordinate staffers'

Key Points
  • President Donald Trump's leadership shake-up at the Department of Homeland Security is aimed squarely at the agency's "bureaucracy" and not on lower level staffers, a senior White House official tells CNBC.
  • In doing so, the official left open the possibility that the White House is considering additional changes at the top.
  • Trump has removed three top DHS officials in the past five days. Still, he denied Tuesday that he was "cleaning house," saying lots of "good people" still work at DHS.
President Donald Trump speaks while meeting with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in the Oval Office of the White House, Tuesday, April 9, 2019, in Washington.
Evan Vucci | AP

President Donald Trump's ongoing leadership shake-up at the Department of Homeland Security is aimed squarely at the agency's "bureaucracy," a senior administration official said Tuesday, and not on lower level staffers.

"There's a lot of false rumors and assumptions out there about names of people in the agencies" who might be asked to leave their jobs, said the official, who declined to be named. "I want to be very clear in saying that we're not taking any look at any subordinate staffers."

By emphasizing that the jobs of lower level staffers were not in danger, however, the official left wide open the possibility that the White House is considering additional DHS changes at the leadership level, although they declined to say who might be asked to leave.

In the past five days, Trump has fired Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, told U.S. Secret Service director Tex Alles to resign, and withdrawn his nomination of Ron Vitiello to lead U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Several news outlets have also reported that Trump is considering replacements for the current director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, Francis Cissna, and John Mitnick, the Homeland Security Department's general counsel.

Trump denied on Tuesday that he was "cleaning house" at the department, saying lots of "good people" still work at DHS.

Likewise, the senior White House official said the departures from DHS were aimed at creating the right environment for a much-needed update to the department's approach to immigration policy, setting aside Obama-era practices and embracing Trump's more hardline policies.

"They haven't even updated their training materials from the Obama era," the official said. "People felt no urgency to make these policy changes the White House was pushing."

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Nielsen's replacement, acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan, is much more aligned with Trump's hard-line views on the border, White House officials have suggested. White House spokesman Hogan Gidley said Monday that there was "no daylight" between Trump and McAleenan on the issue of immigration.

"I don't want to disparage Kirstjen Nielsen at all" the official said, but added that "no one is more frustrated than Kevin by the fact that the policy changes haven't been made."

This official said the White House wants to see much tougher criteria being applied to "credible fear" claims by asylum seekers at the U.S. border.

Frontline immigration officers, the official said, allow too many immigrants to claim credible fear. "Extraordinary credulousness among individuals conducting the exam is a big part of the problem," they said.

This official would not comment on NBC's reporting that the White House wants border patrol agents specifically to do the screening instead of asylum officers. The officials also dodged questions about whether the president was considering any policies that would lead to renewed family separations, instead pointing reporters back to the president's comments in the Oval Office on Tuesday.

"We are not looking to do it," the official said, repeating the president's response to a question about the controversial policy earlier in the day. They also mentioned the need to "remove magnets" that draw more immigrants to the U.S., including the current policy of granting work permits to some asylum seekers.

The official offered few details about the president's abrupt decision last week to give Mexico a year to improve its immigration enforcement before imposing any new tariffs or closing the southern border.

The official denied that intense lobbying efforts by business groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce had impacted Trump's apparent reversal. Asked if the trade groups had been effective, the official replied, "I didn't really think about it all."

— CNBC's Kevin Breuninger contributed reporting.

Secret Service director fired by President Trump