Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, who built a following among conservatives with his provocative social media presence and strong support of Donald Trump, said Wednesday that he's taken a job as an assistant secretary in the Department of Homeland Security.
The department declined to immediately confirm the appointment.
The tough-talking, cowboy hat-wearing firebrand said in an interview with WISN-AM that he will work in the Office of Partnership and Engagement as a liaison to state, local and tribal law enforcement agencies. He said he's leaving his current job next month, but declined to give a date.
"I'm both honored and humbled to be appointed to this position," Clarke said during the interview.
DHS spokeswoman Jenny Burke said in a statement that "such senior positions are announced by the Department when made official by the Secretary. No such announcement with regard to the Office of Public Engagement has been made."
Craig Peterson, a Clarke spokesman, said the sheriff would not comment further and that "he felt the need to tell folks he had accepted the position so the governor could get the ball rolling" on appointing a replacement.
Clarke's elevation to a national posting would come at a time of great turmoil for him and the sheriff's office. Seven workers at the county jail he oversees are at the center of a criminal investigation into the dehydration death last year 38-year-old Terrill Thomas, an inmate who prosecutors say was deprived of water as punishment.
The Milwaukee County District's Attorney's Office is considering charges against those staffers, based on a jury's recommendation after prosecutors presented them with evidence during a weeklong inquest.
Clarke wasn't among the seven staffers on the jury's list because prosecutors say he wasn't directly involved in the events leading up Thomas' death. But the death happened under his leadership, which his critics say was sufficient cause for Clarke to be fired.
Clarke would also be leaving office with several pending lawsuits against him, including one filed by Thomas' relatives. In February, a 24-year-old Milwaukee man sued the sheriff, saying Clarke had deputies detain and question him after a flight from Dallas because, while boarding, the man shook his head at Clarke.
The sheriff didn't deny he had the man detained, saying "he reserves the reasonable right to pre-empt a possible assault."
It's that in-your-face, won't-back-down approach that has endeared him to his conservative supporters. He's been one of Trump's biggest cheerleaders, frequently praising the president's every move on Twitter, where his brash social media presence has earned him over 600,000 followers.
His big following among conservatives got him a spot at the podium of the Republican Party convention last year, making him one of the few African-Americans speakers at the event.
Last year, the frequent Fox News guest earned more than $105,000 in speaking fees — almost as much as his sheriff's salary — at more than three dozen events across the country.
As Clarke's profile has risen since taking over the sheriff's office in 2002, he's become one of the most polarizing figures in Wisconsin politics.
"Our country deserves better," Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele, who has repeatedly clashed with Clarke, said of his appointment to the DHS position. During one of those clashes in 2013, Clarke insulted Abele saying he had "penis envy."
Abele said Clarke has engaged in "gratuitous name calling, insults of other public officials, questioning judges' sentences. In general the focus is on what you should be angry about, not what to like."
An immigrant-advocacy group, Voces de la Frontera, expressed concern about the sheriff's announcement, calling him "unfit for any office" in a statement. The group has recently been critical of Clarke for his desire to have his sheriff's deputies trained to carry out the duties of immigration enforcement officials as part of the federal 287g program.
It wasn't immediately clear what power, if any, Clarke's new assignment would give him on immigration enforcement.
During the Tuesday's radio interview, Clarke said he would act as a liaison between DHS Secretary John Kelly and state and local government officials, including mayors and law enforcement, as well as people in the private sector.
Clarke said he would have a "steep learning curve" in his new job, but added that his experience in local government would be an asset.
"One of the things I've heard in speaking to several of those entities is they feel they're being ignored, and part of it is because this is a massive bureaucracy," he said.
Republican Gov. Scott Walker would be responsible for appointing someone to serve the remainder of Clarke's term, which runs through 2018. Walker's office said the application process for interested applicants will last for about two weeks, followed by interviews.
The process to find a new sheriff will begin once the governor receives a resignation letter from Clarke, and Walker said that hasn't happened yet.
In explaining the appointment process, Walker's office did not offer congratulations or any reaction to Clarke's news.
Associated Press writers Steve Karnowski in Minneapolis and Scott Bauer in Madison contributed to this report.
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