U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul draws critics in bid to run Homeland Security under Trump

Some hardline illegal immigration opponents are increasingly arguing U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul does not have a strong enough record on the issue to run the Department of Homeland Security for President-elect Donald Trump.

Congressman Michael McCaul visits the Texas Capitol for meetings with Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick on border security on Feb. 18, 2015.

U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Austin, is confronting some resistance from the right as he seeks to become Donald Trump's secretary of Homeland Security, a closely watched appointment for a president-elect who pledged to vigorously fight illegal immigration. 

McCaul, the current chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, has been open about his interest in the job, which could entail helping follow through on Trump's promises throughout the campaign to build a border wall and deport millions of people in the country illegally. But some hard-line illegal immigration opponents are increasingly arguing McCaul is not up to the task, citing a congressional record they say has not been tough enough on the issue

"If Rep. McCaul is chosen to head DHS, he will need to take a much more expansive view of border and immigration enforcement than he has in the past," read a statement Friday from Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform. 

McCaul, who met with Trump on Tuesday in New York, has not been shy about pushing back on the criticism, which has been unleashed in recent days on Trump-friendly websites such as Breitbart News and LifeZette. In an interview Wednesday on Fox News, McCaul denounced the claims against him, which first surfaced in a Washington Times story a day earlier, as "incredulous and inflammatory and ... slanderous." 

"To say somehow I am not strong on immigration is laughable because whether it’s sanctuary cities to every vote on the floor of the House, I have strongly voted against illegal immigration," McCaul said earlier Wednesday during a forum at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a think tank in Washington. 

With the criticism mounting, McCaul published an op-ed Friday on Fox News' website making clear there is no daylight between him and Trump on border issues. "We are going to build the wall. Period," McCaul wrote, proposing a "payment plan" for Mexico that include assessing new immigration fees on the country and a "security toll" at border crossings.

The crossfire is coming at a critical time. With McCaul's team expecting Trump to soon make a decision on the job, an aide emailed some potential backers Sunday afternoon to encourage them to make their support known on social media.

If Trump does not make the appointment by Wednesday, McCaul could have another chance to make his case during his annual State of Homeland Security address scheduled that day at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington.

McCaul’s critics most frequently point to his Secure Our Borders First Act of 2015, which they say sought to secure the border without dealing with the millions of people already in the United States against the law. His opponents also note he was one of 19 House Republicans who backed former House Speaker John Boehner’s immigration agenda, which included a path to legal status for those here illegally.

At the Bipartisan Policy Center event last week, McCaul defended the 2015 bill as “very strong,” noting current Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson opposed it and President Barack Obama threatened to veto it. Critics of the legislation, McCaul said, don’t understand his authority as chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee. 

“The fact is that I only have jurisdiction over the border,” McCaul said. “I don’t have jurisdiction over [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement], which is a component of DHS, so therefore I cannot legislate interior enforcement. The argument was my bill didn’t have interior in it. The reason why it didn’t is because I don’t have jurisdiction over that. If I had it, that would’ve been in my bill.”

It has not helped that McCaul received a vote of confidence from Johnson, a Democrat, who interjected at the forum when the moderator asked McCaul about the Washington Times story. "On his behalf, I don't know anybody who is stronger on border security in Congress that I have dealt with," Johnson said. (Later in the discussion, Johnson declined to comment when an audience member asked whom he would like to see as his successor.) 

McCaul's rivals for Homeland Security secretary reportedly include Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a favorite of immigration hardliners. Also in the mix is Frances Townsend, former homeland security adviser to President George W. Bush. 

Positive reviews have nonetheless been rolling in for McCaul as Trump considers him for the Cabinet job. In an op-ed published Saturday by Breitbart, U.S. Rep. Jeff Duncan, a South Carolina Republican, called McCaul the “best pick” for the post. 

“This work is too important to trust to a novice,” Duncan wrote. “We can’t afford to have someone run the Department of Homeland Security who is learning on the job.”

In Texas, McCaul has enjoyed widespread support from fellow Republicans in high places. He counts among his backers U.S. Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, plus a number of his GOP colleagues in the U.S. House from Texas.

"McCaul would be great at Homeland Security," Abbott wrote Saturday on Twitter, sharing McCaul's Fox News op-ed. "He knows border challenges, the threat of cartels & terrorists, & strategies to secure U.S." 

"Michael is a professional prosecutor first and foremost," Cornyn tweeted Saturday in response to an article in the Washington Examiner titled, "Immigration hawks balk at McCaul for DHS." 

Patrick, who chaired Trump's campaign in Texas, is also a fan of McCaul. In an interview the morning after Trump's victory, Patrick said he had already been in touch with the transition team about Texans who could serve in the administration, and he could see McCaul as DHS secretary or attorney general. 

Cruz, whom McCaul has been encouraged to challenge in 2018, has been more measured in his support. Speaking with reporters Friday in McAllen, the Texas senator praised McCaul's law enforcement experience but stopped short of endorsing him for the Cabinet post. "That’s ultimately the decision for the president-elect to make," Cruz said.

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