Trump pulls ICE director nominee amid threats to close border over illegal immigration

Trump said he wants someone "tougher" to lead ICE.

April 05, 2019, 5:00 PM

As he left for a high-profile trip to the southern border on Friday to highlight his efforts to stop illegal immigration, President Donald Trump said he is withdrawing his pick to lead the nation's immigration enforcement agency.

“We're going in a little different direction,” the president told reporters on the White House South Lawn. “We want to go in a tougher direction,” Trump said about the sudden withdrawal of ICE director nominee Ron Vitiello.

A source familiar with the matter said top White House adviser Stephen Miller, who's known for championing a hard-line on immigration, has been pushing Trump to pull the nomination because Miller thinks Vitiello and ICE weren't implementing the president's immigration agenda effectively.

Vitiello planned to travel with the president to California on Friday but was pulled off the trip Thursday evening at Trump's direction, the source said.

The unexpected move comes at the end of a week in which Trump repeatedly threatened to close the border but then backed down, claiming his threat has caused Mexico to stop thousands of migrants from trying to enter the U.S.

ICE had no comment.

Trump nominated Vitiello to be director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in August 2018. Over the past year, ICE has come under increased scrutiny with some congressional Democrats calling to shut down the agency completely.

PHOTO: Ronald D. Vitiello nominee to be assistant Homeland Security secretary for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, greets committee chairman Sen. Ron Johnson prior to Vitiello testifying at a hearing held by the e Nov. 15, 2018 in Washington, D.C.
Ronald D. Vitiello (right), nominee to be assistant Homeland Security secretary for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, greets committee chairman Sen. Ron Johnson prior to Vitiello testifying at a hearing held by the e Nov. 15, 2018 in Washington, D.C.
Win Mcnamee/Getty Images

ICE arrests dropped by more than 10 percent in the second half of last year. When that data was released last month, a senior ICE official said the agency was forced to redirect resources to handle migrants at the southern border.

He has led the agency as acting director since late June.

Vitiello began his career with the U.S. Border Patrol in 1985, eventually becoming Deputy Commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection before his nomination to ICE acting director in June.

PHOTO: In this Nov. 9, 2018, photo, acting ICE director Ron Vitiello gestures during an interview in Richmond, Va.
In this Nov. 9, 2018, photo, acting ICE director Ron Vitiello gestures during an interview in Richmond, Va.
Steve Helber/AP

The union representing ICE employees strongly opposed Vitiello’s nomination, accusing him of making false testimony to congress. It was the first time the organization has formally condemned a presidential nomination.

“Never before have we seen so many warning signs with respect to a nominee prior to confirmation and we believe him to be unfit to serve as Director,” the ICE union wrote in a letter to Senate leaders. “We have no confidence in Mr. Vitiello or his ability to lead our agency …”

In announcing the withdrawal of Vitiello’s nomination, Trump also said he wants to end the “whole asylum system” and urged Congress to “get rid of” immigration judges.

“You can't have a court case every time somebody steps their foot on our ground,” Trump told reporters on the White House south lawn. “So very important that Congress acts.”

ABC News’ Katherine Faulders contributed to this report.

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